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Can You See Ear Tubes With a Flashlight?
Ear tubes, also known as tympanostomy or myringotomy tubes, are tiny cylinders placed through the eardrum to relieve pressure and fluid buildup in the middle ear. This common procedure is typically done to treat chronic ear infections or fluid in the ear (effusion) in children. But can you actually see these tiny tubes once they are surgically implanted? Let's shine a light on what ear tubes are, why they are used, and whether a simple flashlight can reveal them.
What Are Ear Tubes?
Ear tubes are small, hollow cylinders, usually made of plastic or metal, that are inserted into the eardrum during a quick surgical procedure. The tube acts as a vent that allows air into the middle ear space to prevent fluid buildup and decrease pressure.
According to Dr. Nina Shapiro, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at UCLA Medical Center, ear tubes are about "2 to 3 mm long (1/8th inch), and about 1 mm in diameter, about the size of the head of a nail." They remain in place temporarily before falling out on their own after the eardrum has healed, usually within 6 to 18 months.
When Are Ear Tubes Recommended?
Ear tubes are typically recommended for children who have repeated middle ear infections, often associated with fluid buildup. The technical terms for these conditions are acute otitis media (AOM) and otitis media with effusion (OME).
AOM is a middle ear infection, usually caused by a cold, flu, or bacterial infection. OME is when thick fluid gets trapped behind the eardrum, even after an infection clears up. This lingering fluid can muffle hearing and allow infections to recur.
According to Janine Saunders, audiologist at Mayo Clinic, "Repeated ear infections and persistent fluid are the main reasons tubes are recommended. Generally, tubes are considered when a child has six or more infections in a year, or fluid behind the eardrum for more than three months."
How Are Ear Tubes Inserted?
Inserting ear tubes is a quick and common outpatient surgical procedure. It is also known as tympanostomy or myringotomy. Here is a brief overview of how it works:
- The child receives general anesthesia so they stay asleep and comfortable during the 5-10 minute procedure.
- The surgeon makes a tiny incision in the eardrum to suction out any fluid. Then they gently insert the tube through the incision.
- The tubes are positioned to allow ventilation and prevent fluid accumulation. The incision heals rapidly after tube placement.
Most children can return to normal activity within 24 hours. The entire process from start to finish usually takes less than 30 minutes.
Can You See the Ear Tubes with a Flashlight?
Now to the main question - is it possible to see the ear tubes at home with just a simple flashlight?
The short answer is, unfortunately, no. While the ear canal and eardrum can be somewhat visible with a flashlight pressed to the outer ear, ear tubes themselves are too tiny and deep within the ear to be visible this way.
Lorin Smith, audiologist at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary, confirms that "Ear tubes cannot be seen with a simple flashlight pressed to the ear. Even with specialized tools called otoscopes with magnification, ear tubes can be challenging to visualize within the ear canal."
While parents understandably want to peek in their child's ears after a procedure, ear tubes require specialized visualization tools to be seen properly.
How are Ear Tubes Examined After Placement?
Instead of flashlights, doctors have specialized tools to examine the position and function of ear tubes. Here are some common ways tubes can be visualized:
- Otoscope - This is a handheld tool with magnification and light that allows providers to examine the ear canal and eardrum. However, even with high magnification, ear tubes can be difficult to spot.
- Microscope - Many surgeons use operating microscopes during the initial tube placement, allowing precision placement and verification.
- Endoscope - A tiny camera on the end of a thin tube can be used to navigate inside the ear canal. This allows doctors to check tube position and ventilation.
- Pneumatoscope - This device detects airflow through a tube by releasing a puff of air. If the tube is clear, the air will pass through and move the eardrum.
- Tympanogram - Eardrum movement is also measured with this non-invasive hearing test. The results show if tubes are allowing ventilation and pressure equalization.
While parents may be curious to visually inspect their child's ear tubes, these specialized tools allow doctors to properly examine tube placement and function.
Signs of Ear Tube Presence
Although ear tubes themselves are rarely visible at home, parents may notice signs that indicate their presence and proper functioning.
According to Nationwide Children's Hospital, these may include:
- Better hearing or speech after chronic fluid buildup
- Decreased ear infections
- Popping sensation in the ear when swallowing
- Whistling or buzzing sound when exposed to wind
- Water running out of the ear while bathing
- Crusting around the ear canal opening
Consult your doctor if you notice pus draining from the ear, which may indicate infection, or if tubes do not seem to be functioning several months after placement.
Caring for Ear Tubes at Home
To help keep ear tubes working properly, follow any home care instructions from your doctor. Common recommendations include:
- Using ear plugs or headbands to keep water out of the ears during bathing or swimming
- Avoiding smoke exposure which can irritate the tubes
- Gently wiping the outer ear clean as needed
- Administering any eardrops as prescribed
- Keeping follow-up appointments to monitor tube function
Ear tubes usually fall out on their own as the eardrum heals. Call your doctor if you find an ear tube in your child's ear once it has extruded.
When to See the Doctor
Consult an ear, nose and throat specialist if you notice:
- Pus or foul-smelling drainage from the ear
- Fever, headache, dizziness, or ear pain
- Decreased hearing or recurring infections
- No improvement in hearing after tubes are placed
This may indicate an ear infection or clogged tube requiring evaluation and treatment.
Let the Doctor Do the Looking
Ear tubes play an important role in preventing recurring infections and improving hearing in children with chronic middle ear problems. While it is tempting for parents to peek into their child's ears with a flashlight after a procedure, the tiny tubes themselves will not be visible this way. Instead, allow your doctor to properly examine the placement and function of new ear tubes using specialized visualization tools. With good follow-up care, ear tubes can resolve troublesome symptoms and give children better hearing, health, and quality of life.