Most people have felt the pain and pressure associated with ear infections at some time in their lives; today, thanks to ear grommets, ear nose throat specialists (ENTs) are better equipped than ever to help deal with some of the most debilitating ear infections. What are ear grommets? How do they work? How long must they remain in the ears? Here, we’ll answer these questions and take a closer look at ear grommets.
What are Ear Grommets?
While most ear infections clear up with the help of antibiotics, some chronic middle ear infections simply do not respond properly. When antibiotics fail to remove fluid that has built up in the ears, ear nose throat doctors turn to special tubes called ear grommets to relieve the pressure caused by the fluid and to help prevent subsequent ear infections.
Also known as tympanostomy tubes, ear tubes, PE tubes, pressure equalization tubes, or myringotomy tubes, ear grommets are inserted directly into the eardrums. Ear grommets come in a variety of designs and are meant to stay in place for as long as 2 to 4 years. Once, most ear grommets were made of stainless steel; today, most are constructed of plastics such as Teflon or silicone. Ear grommets are tiny; in fact, they are smaller than a standard match head.
Who Needs Ear Grommets?
Ear grommets are most commonly placed in the ears of small children suffering from chronic ear infections or “glue ear.” Occasionally, they are prescribed for adults, and in addition to cases of chronic ear infection, there are a few other conditions that can be treated via the insertion of ear grommets.
In general, anyone with a chronic middle ear infection that lasts for six months in one ear, or a chronic middle ear infection lasting for three months in both ears is a candidate for ear grommets. In addition, anyone suffering recurrent middle ear infections, who suffers three ear infections in six months or four ear infections in a year is a candidate. People with chronic eustachian tube dysfunction are candidates as well. Finally, ear grommets are sometimes utilized in the treatment of barotrauma, particularly if trauma recurs after air travel or after treatment in a hypobaric chamber.
How Ear Grommets Work
Ear grommets work by encouraging air to flow into the affected ear. This essential airflow is often blocked by fluid buildup, but with the help of the ear grommets, the fluid evaporates. This eases pain and pressure and helps the affected person to hear better than before.
While ear grommet insertion can be performed under local anesthesia in cooperative adults capable of lying perfectly still for the procedure, most patients requiring these tubes are young children. As any movement during this procedure can cause damage to the ear, ear grommet insertion requires general anesthesia in children. Even so, it is an outpatient procedure. Children undergoing surgical ear grommet placement can go home a few hours after the procedure has been completed.
Ear grommets are meant to fall from the eardrum spontaneously as the eardrum’s skin slowly migrates toward the wall of the ear canal over time. The eardrum will normally close with no residual hole at the grommet site, but in some cases, small perforations will remain.
Ear Grommet Care
People wearing ear grommets can be active and enjoy everyday activities – even swimming! The patient will need to wear earplugs when bathing or swimming to prevent water from entering the ears; earplug use should continue until the grommets fall out. You will need to visit his or her ENT regularly to ensure that the grommets are properly positioned, and to ensure that the ear grommets do not fall out prematurely. Your ear nose throat specialist will also conduct hearing tests as part of the routine care regimen.