Is Your Child Having Ear Tube Surgery? Here’s What You Need to Know

ear tube surgery
Graphics by: Anna Wissler

There isn’t much that all parents can agree on, but we can all concur that having a sick child is the absolute worst—even more so when it’s an illness that keeps coming back like repeated colds, sore throats, and ear infections. When things like this become incessant, sometimes the only solution is a surgical procedure like tonsil or ear tube surgery. We know surgery can often seem even scarier than the original illness. If this is your current predicament, we’re here to help ease your anxiety about the unknown. 

For half a decade now, The Everymom has strived to be a go-to resource for whatever kind of motherhood moment you’re in: the good, the bad, the scary. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide with the help of the medical experts at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago to answer all your questions regarding common surgical procedures. Pediatric otolaryngology surgeons are sharing everything you need to know about ear tube surgery.


Ear Tube Surgery in Kids: A Guide for Parents


1. What is ear tube surgery and why might my child need it? Who might perform it?

Ear tube insertion, sometimes called a myringotomy, is typically performed by pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons on young children (mostly ages 1-3 but can be placed in older children as well) with frequent ear infections—e.g., more than three ear infections in six months. The tubes help fluid drain out of the middle ear, reducing the risk of future ear infections. The tubes usually fall out by themselves after 6-18 months.


2. Is this an inpatient or outpatient procedure?

This is an outpatient procedure. It usually takes no more than 20 minutes and is one of the most common pediatric procedures performed in the U.S.


3. What’s the best way to physically prepare a child for this surgery at home?

Even though this is a routine procedure, surgery can be scary for kids (and their loved ones!). Talking with children about what it will be like can help assuage any fears. Parents and caregivers should always feel free to reach out to their care team with specific questions or concerns.

A 1-3 year old child may not be able to be prepared for surgery, per se, although child life can see some as needed. Parents need to provide love and a sense of safety, since they can’t explain what is happening to a young child.


4. Can they eat beforehand? Should they stay hydrated?

In general, the stomach must be completely empty for the day of the procedure. Depending on the time of the procedure, the child may have to stop eating or drinking the night before and drinking clear liquids two hours before. A nurse will give specific directions tailored to your child’s procedure before it’s scheduled.


5. Do you have any tips for easing both parent and child’s anxiety leading up to the procedure?

Education is key. Reach out to the child’s care team with any questions and concerns. Some children’s hospitals offer a child life specialist who’s trained to walk young children through their fears about procedures. Lurie Children’s has videos and written guides to help prepare children and their families for a procedure.



6. How painful is this procedure? 

Pain is not often associated with this procedure. If there is discomfort, over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol or Motrin are often prescribed.


7. Does this procedure require any sort of sedation or anesthesia? 

Yes, most children are placed under general anesthesia to receive ear tubes. Children’s hospitals like Lurie Children’s have trained pediatric anesthesiologists who ensure your child’s safety and comfort during the entire procedure.


8. What is normal behavior for a child after surgery?

Anesthesia can make a child sleepy for several hours following the procedure. Still, most children who undergo this surgery return to their normal activities the day following their procedure. Click here to learn more about pediatric anesthesia.


9. What will the post-operative and recovery phase look like? 

In some cases, children will be prescribed ear drops to use for a few days after surgery to help heal the middle ear, where a small incision is made to place the tubes. The child normally goes home the same day and returns to school or normal activities the next day.


10. Post-procedure, what symptoms should I be monitoring for that might suggest I should contact our doctor?

As with all surgeries, there is a small risk of infection. If the child has a fever or can’t keep fluids down for more than 24 hours, call the doctor. The medical team should also be contacted if the tubes fall out within a few weeks of surgery, or if there’s yellowish or smelly drainage from the ear.

If severe pain or bleeding from the ear after tubes, then maybe the tube clogged and the child needs to be seen first by their primary care physician to assess the situation. If bleeding, this usually means inflammation around the tube, and generally can be treated with ear drops.

The emergency room is not always a great place to go for these issues—instead it’s best to go see a primary care physician and pediatric ENT surgeon directly. Of course, this would be a judgment call for family and/or treating physician.



11. Can my child swim or get his head wet with tubes in the ears?

Generally, yes, a child can swim and be bathed in the days following the procedure. Ask the doctor whether ear plugs would be recommended for the first few days, though.


12. Will this affect my child’s hearing?

In many cases, ear tubes will improve hearing in children who may otherwise experience hearing issues due to chronic ear infections and fluid buildup in the ear. In rare cases, scarring on the ear drum can relate to the inflammation from the ear infections themselves, not necessarily the tube. This is generally not associated with any hearing loss.


13. Can ear tubes get clogged after surgery?

This does happen in rare cases. If a tube becomes clogged, the next steps will vary depending on the child’s symptoms and physical exam. The clog will sometimes resolve with ear drops or simply with time. Occasionally, an ear tube that’s not working well may need to be replaced if the child has recurrent infections or persistent fluid stuck behind the ear drum.

Particularly with newer tubes, if they are plugged, they can often unplug in the office at a first follow-up visit. Then may treat with drops depending on the child/scenario. Clogs don’t often go away on their own.


14. Can their body reject the ear tubes?

No. The ear tubes normally fall out of the eardrum and the ear canal on their own. This typically happens after about one year. Sometimes they fall out sooner, sometimes later. But the average standard tube lasts about one year.


15. Can ear tubes hurt when they come out?

When the tubes fall out on their own, it typically happens without the child (or parent) noticing. It usually doesn’t hurt.


16. Will the ear tubes help with my child’s speech development?

The main purpose of the ear tubes is to help protect the child’s hearing. It may indirectly help with speech development in patients whose speech delay is related to hearing loss from middle ear fluid.

Want to learn more? Check out what the specialists from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago are sharing here.


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This post was in partnership with Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everymom editorial board. We only recommend brands we genuinely love.