Who Is a Good Candidate for Ear Tubes?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Mother dripping ear drops to son

Ear tubes allow air to reach the middle ear. This ventilation helps resolve chronic middle ear problems, such as recurrent infections and hearing loss from fluid buildup. The goal of placing ear tubes, also known as tympanostomy tube placement, is to reduce the risk of future ear infections and correct problems in the middle ear.

Are There Other Treatment Options?

Usually, ear tube surgery is a last resort to clear chronic infections and improve ear drainage. This includes chronic infections that don’t respond to antibiotics. But even if antibiotics work, frequent ear infections may mean it’s time for ear tubes.

Ask your doctor about all of your treatment options and consider getting a second opinion before deciding on surgery.

When to Consider Ear Tube Surgery

You may want to consider surgery if your child is suffering from middle ear problems. Your doctor may decide that your child is a good candidate for ear tube surgery if:

  • Ear infections occur three or more times in six months, or four or more times in a year.

  • Ear infections cause behavior or sleep problems.

  • Fluid buildup persists after an ear infection

  • Fluid buildup causes hearing loss, or speech or balance problems.

  • Malformations of the eardrum or eustachian tube are present.

Who Is NOT a Good Candidate for Ear Tube Surgery?
Once you and your doctor decide it’s time for ear tube surgery, there are very few reasons that would prevent your child from having it. Your child may not be a good candidate if:

  • The doctor can’t see your child’s eardrum clearly due to swelling or blockage of the ear canal. This may require treating the ear canal problem first.

  • There is a tumor or growth on the eardrum. This is rare and usually benign (not cancerous). Treatment may involve watchful waiting or removal of the tumor, depending on its size and other factors.

  • There is an abnormal blood vessel running through the middle ear. This is also rare and is usually present since birth. Treatment is highly individualized.

What to Expect

A surgeon performs ear tube surgery by making a small hole in each eardrum (tympanic membrane) using a small scalpel or a laser. Next, the surgeon inserts tiny tubes in the holes to keep them open. Ear tubes will fall out by themselves after about a year and the holes will heal.

The procedure itself only takes about 15 minutes, but it does require anesthesia. Your child can go home after recovering from the anesthesia. This usually takes an hour or two. Pain and recovery after ear tube surgery is minimal.

Your child may need to wear earplugs during bathing, swimming, and other water activities. This prevents bacteria from entering the middle ear. Ask your doctor if this is necessary.

If your child had hearing loss before surgery, it will resolve immediately afterwards. Your doctor will order a hearing test to make sure everything is back to normal.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Nov 8
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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