Grommets are small flanged plastic tubes. They are similar in shape to a cotton reel, which are inserted into a surgically made incision in the eardrum (tympanic membrane). This is done in order to help prevent middle ear infections. They have a tiny channel through the centre which allows air to pass from the ear canal to the middle ear. This ventilates it, allowing the fluid to drain and so reducing the risk of infection. Your Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) Surgeon makes a very small cut in the eardrum. This is usually whilst the patient is under a general anaesthetic.
Using a pair of forceps the tiny plastic tube is placed in the incision, holding it open and preventing it from healing. Some ENT Surgeons do not recommend swimming with grommets in place. They state that water may cause permanent reduction in hearing through damage to the delicate inner ear structures. Other surgeons say that this is not a serious problem; there is not a large body of evidence to show whether this is the case. If in doubt, it is worth avoiding water entering the ears and wearing earplugs and a swimming hat pulled low over the ears if you do go swimming. As well as this it is worth keeping the head above water. Grommets tend to be fitted to the eardrums of those who suffer frequent middle ear infections. This is usually to the point of them causing significant disruption to the individual's life.
Problems which can occur are hearing loss causing difficulty at work or school through communication. Lack of sleep due to pain can also cause trouble. Sometimes if hearing loss due to fluid buildup in the middle ear is the main issue then hearing aids are worn instead. This acts to amplify the sound and bypass the obstruction. Grommets help in this situation by allowing fluid to discharge from the middle ear into the ear canal. One possible complication of this is the increased frequency of otitis externa, also known as swimmers' ear, in this group of people. This is due to the ear canal being wet. The water soaks through the waxy layer and breaks down the epithelium which protects the canal. This allowing bacteria to penetrate into the skin.
Itching and soreness are early signs. If the infection progresses then pain, discharge, bleeding and muffled hearing from wax and debris in the ear canal occur. If this is the case medical advice should be sought so that treatment can be started early to prevent serious problems occurring.