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Grommets (ventilation tubes)

Grommets are small plastic tubes with a hole in the centre that are inserted into the eardrum in a short operation. They are often called air vents or ventilation tubes as the hole in the grommet allows fresh air to pass into the middle ear. This reduces the risk of fluid build up behind the eardrum and gives ear infections a chance to clear up.

Some children are prone to middle ear infections (also called otitis media) and may have as many as five or six a year. If these infections keep coming back and antibiotics aren't helping, many doctors will recommend a surgical procedure to have grommets inserted.

Grommets are also used in children with glue ear, where thick, sticky fluid builds up in the space behind the eardrum. In such cases, hearing is reduced and children may have difficulty talking and learning.

Grommets stay in for six to 18 months then eventually fall out.

Talk to your doctor about whether grommets are an option for your child.

Getting grommets

To get grommets, your child will need an operation. The operation takes about 10 to 15 minutes and is done as day surgery (you don't need to stay overnight in hospital).

During the operation:

An otolaryngologist – previously called an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist – will perform the operation.

When your child has recovered and is wide awake, they are usually allowed to go home an hour or so after the operation. Your child may be unsettled for a few hours but they are unlikely to feel any pain in their ears after grommet insertion. It is most likely they will be able to return to school the following day.

In most cases, parents notice an immediate improvement in their child's hearing. Parents also report improvements in sleep and general behaviour.

If the infection comes back after the grommets have fallen out, another set may be needed. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

Self-care with grommets

When your child has grommets your doctor will probably recommend keeping their ears dry and away from water, especially for the first few weeks. Ask your surgeon about ear protection for your child in water (when swimming, shampooing, showering and bathing) at the time of the operation, as advice on this varies.

Like all operations, having grommets inserted carries some risks.

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Adapted from Health Navigator by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2020.

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