Ear Tube Surgery: A Doctor Answers Your Top Questions

If your child has frequent ear infections, your child’s doctor may recommend ear tube surgery. It’s the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. More than half a million children in the United States have ear tube surgery every year, usually when they are 1 to 3 years old.

UNC Health neurotologist A. Morgan Selleck, MD, answers common questions about this treatment.

What is ear tube surgery?

A middle ear infection is the most common type of ear infection and most often affects babies and young children. Short in duration yet painful, a middle ear infection occurs because of fluid buildup behind the eardrum when the eustachian tube, which connects the middle of the ear to the back of the throat, becomes blocked and leads to bacteria growth.

These passages are shorter and more horizontal in young children, making fluid drainage difficult. Fluid trapped in the ear is an ideal place for bacteria to grow.

An ear tube is a tiny cylinder used to treat and prevent buildup of fluids in the middle ear.

“Ear tube surgery is where we go in and we make a cut in the eardrum [myringotomy]. Then we insert this teeny-tiny little ear tube into the eardrum [tympanostomy], which allows the fluid to come out of the middle ear space and prevent it from building up behind the eardrum,” Dr. Selleck says.

How do I know if my child needs ear tube surgery?

Persistent fluid in the ears can cause significant hearing loss, which also can result in speech delays. If your child has recurring ear infections, your pediatrician may recommend that your child see an ear, nose and throat specialist such as a neurotologist to be evaluated for ear tubes.

“If they have fluid that builds up behind their eardrum that is persistent and essentially doesn’t go away on its own, ear tube surgery can help,” Dr. Selleck says. “Typically, if a child has had at least three months of having fluid in their middle ear space, we consider ear tubes.”

Although your child can still get an ear infection once the tubes are placed, the infection is usually not painful.

“The kids feel so much better because they don’t get the pain associated with ear infections, and some kids who aren’t talking or are having speech delay issues can start having an explosion of speech,” Dr. Selleck says. “It’s a pretty small surgery, and it can be really incredible and life-changing for these little kids.”

How long does ear tube surgery take?

Ear tube surgery is performed under general anesthesia and takes about 10 minutes. After a brief recovery in a postoperative unit, most children go home on the day of surgery.

What is the recovery period for ear tube surgery?

There is essentially no recovery, Dr. Selleck says.

“There could be some drainage from the ears, but there’s no pain associated with the procedure. We usually have patients do ear drops, and that’s to prevent drainage and help the drainage that may have dried up,” she says. “No one feels the ear tubes after they are inserted.”

Are there any restrictions after ear tube surgery?

No, there are no restrictions after ear tube surgery.

“We encourage people to live life as normal, swimming included,” Dr. Selleck says.

Do ear tubes fall out?

Yes, most tubes last about six to 18 months and fall out by themselves. Most children will outgrow their ear problems during this time. Your child’s doctor may need to remove tubes that do not come out after three or more years.

Is ear tube surgery just for kids?

While it is much more common for children, adults can get ear tubes, too, although the process is different.

“In kids, they have to have sedation, so they go to the operating room to get ear tubes,” Dr. Selleck says. “We usually do adults in clinic, and they’re wide awake for it. And that’s just because adults can stay still for us, and kids can’t.”

Being awake means the procedure is a bit more painful for adults, even though the doctor numbs the eardrum to put in the ear tubes.

“Adults usually are doing the procedure because of fluid buildup. It’s less likely that it’s an infection,” Dr. Selleck says. “It really helps them from a hearing standpoint. I get to see the immediate result of them going from not being able to hear to being able to hear within seconds, which is really cool.”

Does your child have constant ear infections? Talk to your doctor about ear tube surgery. If you need a doctor, find one near you.