Ear tubes (pressure equalization tubes) are one of the most common surgical procedures performed on children in the United States. The most common reasons for ear tubes are recurrent ear infections (more than 5 infections in 1 year) or fluid trapped behind the ear drum (for more than 3 months).

Most children have at least one ear infection in early childhood. Usually these infections occur once or twice a year and are treated easily by your child's pediatrician with amoxicillin or another antibiotic taken by mouth. Children will generally grow out of getting ear infections by age 3 to 5.

Some children are affected more seriously though, and these children can be helped by placement of ear tubes. These tubes are placed by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, throat doctor). Your child will be given anesthesia while the tubes are put in. Using a microscope, the doctor will make a small incision through the eardrum, suck out any fluid or pus trapped behind the eardrum, and then place a small tube through the hole. The tubes are usually made out of plastic or silicone. It typically takes less than 10 minutes of surgical time to place tubes in both ears.

After the procedure, your child should be able to go home once he or she is fully awake. There is usually not much pain or discomfort: children's Tylenol should be adequate for pain control. Your doctor may give antibiotic ear drops to use for a few days after the procedure. Some bloody drainage is expected for a few days after the tubes are put in. Your child may pull at his or her ears as well, this is normal.

The tubes will usually stay in the eardrum for about 1 year before falling out. If they have not fallen out after 2 years, your doctor may decide to take them out. Your doctor will typically see your child back in the office every 4-6 months to check on the tubes.

Important point: the tubes will not necessarily prevent ear infections or cut down the number of infections. What the tube does is allow fluid to drain out of the ear which would otherwise be trapped behind the eardrum. As a result, there is usually less pain and discomfort for your child when he or she develops an infection. Another benefit is that ear infections can usually be treated easily with antibiotic ear drops rather than antibiotics by mouth.

While the ear tubes are in your child's ears, be careful about getting water in the ears, especially if your child is old enough to swim. Ask your doctor about his or her specific recommendations about getting water in the ears.

After the ear tubes fall out, about 75% of children will do well and not have more infections. However, 25% will continue to have infections and may require one or more sets of tubes in the future. Children with craniofacial anomalies such as cleft palate are particularly at risk for ear problems.

Ear tube placement is a very safe procedure. There is commonly some bloody drainage after the procedure which usually goes away after several days. Usually the tubes will fall out after approximately 1 year. At this time, the eardrum typically heals over where the tube had been sitting. Sometimes, a persistent hole in the eardrum will remain open. Your doctor can repair this problem if it occurs. Serious or life-threatening problems are exceedingly rare and are typically related to problems with anesthesia.

The above article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as specific medical advice.