How to Know if an Adult Ear Tube Placement Can Help You

David Cuthbertson, MD

Ear tubes for adults

When we think about someone getting tubes in their ears, we typically picture a toddler who can’t shake their constant ear infections. But needing tubes in the ears happens for adults, too. While it’s less frequent than child procedures, adults sometimes need ear tube placement surgery, although for a slightly different reason.

Most kids need the surgery because of their anatomical development. The ear is connected to the back of the nose through the “Eustachian tube.” When a person is young, that tube is short and horizontal, which makes it more likely for the nose to drain into the ear. Cue the ear infections. Anytime there’s inflammation in the nose, the fluid drains back into the ear.

In adults, the station tube has developed to be longer and more vertical. This increased separation between the nose and ear makes it much less likely that the nose drainage will funnel towards the ear. This space also allows the ear to aerate more efficiently — which is why adults don’t get as many ear infections.

Still, for some adults, the eustachian tube doesn’t allow the ear to vent like it should, making ear tube placement a possible solution. If you’re considering pressure equalization tubes, ventilation tubes, ear grommets, or tympanostomy tubes (all names for ear tubes), here’s the basic info you’ll want to know first:

What Are Tubes and Why Might I Need Them?

In some adults, eustachian tube dysfunction doesn’t allow the ear to operate correctly. For some patients, allergies or infection causes blockage in the nose due to inflammation. In other patients, the tube developed to be too narrow. Whatever the reason, the ear isn’t working as it should.

Ear tube placement allows the ear another way to equalize pressure. The tube, which looks like a small grommet, is made of soft rubber in order to be minimally traumatic to the eardrum. Once inserted, it vents the ear, acting as a pressure valve to compensate for the lack of function from the eustachian tube. It works to drain fluid, relieve negative pressure, and sometimes alleviate a feeling of fullness in the ear as well.

What Is an Ear Tube Placement Procedure?

In adults, ear tube placement is more of a small procedure than a surgery. Using a microscope, we start this simple in-office procedure by placing a drop of a numbing agent on the eardrum itself. The inside of the ear goes completely numb within 10 seconds. Then, we make a small incision in the eardrum and place the tube within the incision. The tube keeps the eardrum from closing, allowing it to vent over time.

There’s no need for the procedure to take place under general anesthesia in an outpatient surgery center for adults. The only reason we opt for a different setting for kids is to keep them from making sudden movements while we attempt to place the tube, which may cause damage to the ear. Overall, it’s very simple and well-tolerated procedure in the office.

Are Ear Tubes Permanent?

Ear tubes are not permanent, but there are different types of tubes we can use depending on the duration we want them to remain in the ear. We usually start with tubes designed to stay in the ear 3-6 months before the eardrum pushes them out naturally. Typically, these tubes last longer in kids.

For some patients, one tube placement is enough to solve the issue. For others, we may opt for repeat ear tube placement. If a patient needs another placement, we’ll consider longer-lasting options, including special tubes designed to last for several years.

What If The Tube Comes Out Too Soon?

Once we place the tube in the ear, we don’t have any direct control over its exact placement or how long your body allows it to remain in the ear. In some cases, it may come out too soon. For other patients, it may stay in too long. When the tube doesn’t naturally come out after several years, we may consider pulling it out. Although rare, these situations can result in a small or large hole in the eardrum that may need to be repaired.

The most common complication, however, is that the tube clogs. A little dried blood or mucus may not allow the tube to drain properly, but it’s easily fixable in the clinic.

What to Expect on the Day of the Procedure?

This is a quick, five-minute procedure. There’s no preparation necessary for the patient. Depending on the patients’ needs, we can place these in one or both ears.

There’s no recovery period involved either. Patients can get back to normal immediately following the procedure.

When Should You Consult an ENT?

If you’re getting recurrent ear infections, fluid in the ears, or extreme ear pain and pressure, come see us to find out if ear tubes might be a solution to your problem.

Related: What Does An ENT Do At Your First Appointment?

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Ear