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' 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.
When are grommets used?
Some children are prone to middle ear infections (also called otitis media) and may have as many as 5 or 6 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.
Talk to your doctor about whether grommets are an option for your child.
How are grommets placed in the ear?
Your child will need to have an operation to have grommets placed in their ear.
The operation takes about 10 to 15 and is done as day surgery (you don't need to stay overnight in hospital).
During the operation:
- Your child will be put under general anaesthetic, so will be in a deep sleep-like state.
- A small cut is made in the eardrum to allow the fluid behind the ear drum to drain.
- The grommet is then placed in the eardrum.
A specialist ear nose and throat surgeon (also known as an ENT or otolaryngologist or ORL surgeon) will perform the operation.
What should I expect after 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.
How successful is the operation?
In most cases, parents notice an immediate improvement in their child's hearing. Parents also report improvements in sleep and general behaviour.
How long do grommets stay in for?
Grommets stay in for 6 to 18 months and then eventually fall out.
If the infection comes back after the grommets have fallen out, another set may be needed. Your doctor will discuss this with you.
Taking care of 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.
What are the risks of having grommets
Like all operations, having grommets inserted does carry some risks.
- Discharge or leaking ear – this is usually treated with antibiotic eardrops.
- Hole in the eardum – sometimes the grommet falls out leaving a small hole in the eardrum. This does not usually affect hearing but may cause infection and it will require an operation to close the hole.