Ventilation tubes are tiny plastic tubes that are surgically inserted through the eardrum by an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. They also may be called tympanostomy tubes, myringotomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or PE (pressure equalization) tubes. Ventilation tubes drain fluid out of the middle ear space and let air in.
The eardrum normally vibrates with sound because the space behind it (the middle ear) is filled with air. If the middle ear is filled with fluid, as occurs during an ear infection, hearing is muffled.
Sometimes after an ear is no longer infected, fluid remains in the ear. This occurs if the eustachian tube, which runs from the back of the nose to the middle ear, becomes blocked and no longer allows air in and fluid out.
Approximately 30% of children still have fluid in the middle ear 1 month after an ear infection. 20% still have fluid 2 months, 10% at 3 months, and 5% have fluid 4 months after the infection. Fluid is especially likely to stay in the ear if the first infection occurs before a child is 6 months old. By the time a child is 5 years old, the eustachian tube is wider, and fluid usually doesn't stay long after ear infections are treated.
The main concern about having fluid in the middle ear for a long time is that it temporarily affects the child’s speech and hearing AND makes him prone to recurrent ear infections.
Ventilation tubes allow fluid to drain out of the middle ear space and allow air to reenter. Putting in ear tubes may:
A few children with ventilation tubes continue to have ear infections with drainage and pain. However, these bouts of infection that require antibiotics probably would have occurred without the tubes.
Normally the tubes come out and fall into the ear canal after about a year. Complications may occur when the tubes come out. Sometimes they come out too quickly and need to be replaced by another set. Rarely, they fall into the middle ear space and need to be removed by the surgeon. If the tubes remain in the eardrum for over 2 years, the surgeon may need to remove them.
After the tubes come out, they may leave scars on the eardrum or a small hole (perforation) that doesn't heal. Both of these problems can cause a small hearing loss.
Because of these possible complications and the need to give anesthesia to young children before the operation, physicians recommend ventilation tubes only for children who really need them.
The surgical placement of ventilation tubes is usually recommended for middle ear fluid if your child has the following conditions:
Ventilation tube placement is also recommended for severe ear infections such as:
Most children have only temporary hearing loss because of fluid in their middle ears. When you talk to your child during this time of temporary hearing loss, get close to him, seek eye contact, get his full attention, and occasionally check that he understands what you have said. If your child is not hearing you well, speak in a louder voice than you normally use. A common mistake is to assume your child is ignoring you when actually he doesn't hear you. Reduce background noise from radio or television while you talk with your child.
If your child goes to school, make sure that he sits near the teacher. (Fluid in the middle ear makes it difficult to hear in a crowd or classroom).
After ventilation tube surgery, the hearing loss caused by fluid in the middle ear is cleared up right away. Sometimes children even complain that normal sounds seem too loud. Keep in mind that most children's speech development will catch up after a brief period of partial hearing.
Chronic ear fluid and recurrent ear infections are usually caused by a blocked eustachian tube. However, there are other things you can do to help:
Treat or eliminate these factors before you consider ventilation tubes.
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