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What are ear tubes, and why do some kids need them?

Each year, more than 500,000 ear tube surgeries are performed on children, making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

But have you ever wondered why some kids need ear tubes and what an ear tube does inside one’s ear? We caught up with Tim Lander, MD, one of Children’s pediatric otolaryngologists, otherwise known as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, to get the scoop on why some kids need ear tubes and what the tubes do.

According to Dr. Lander there are two primary reasons that children need ear tubes. “One reason is recurrent middle ear infections; the other is a problem with persistent fluid in the ear, which is usually found because a child is experiencing hearing loss,” Lander said.

Typically, there are two common times that children need ear tubes: between the ages of 15 months and three years (usually because of recurrent ear infections) or between the ages of four and six (typically to treat hearing loss due to fluid build–up).

So why does this happen and how do tubes help?

“The bottom line is that there is fluid trapped behind the eardrum,” Lander explained. Typically the Eustachian tube in our ears works by allowing air in and fluid to drain out. If the Eustachian tube doesn’t open, the fluid can’t get out, in turn causing either an infection or hearing loss, sometimes both.

“By placing a hole in the ear drum with a small stent, air pressure is allowed to not only come in, but the tube also allows the fluid to drain out,” Lander said.

The most common kind of ear tubes are grommet tubes which are not permanent and eventually fall out on their own 8-15 months after surgery. There is also a t-tube that is used less often that is specifically designed to stay in one’s ear indefinitely.

Does your child need ear tubes?

If you have concerns about your child’s recurrent ear infections or hearing, talk to your child’s doctor. Pediatricians will refer your child to an ENT doctor when and if they think your child is a candidate for ear tubes.

What to expect if your child needs ear tubes

If your child is referred to an ENT who decides ear tubes is the next step, the procedure is always an outpatient procedure, unless combined with another medical procedure that requires a hospital stay. “Currently all children [who have ear tubes put in] are put under general anesthesia,” Lander explained. The procedure itself takes 5-10 minutes to place a hole and the tubes into the ear drum and most kids are discharged within an hour.

Typically kids are back to themselves within the same day and don’t even notice the tubes in their ears aside from better hearing and fewer ear infections.

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s ears, talk to your child’s doctor.

Additional information about ear tubes can be found here.