Glue ear, or otitis media with effusion, happens when fluid collects in your child’s middle ear. The main symptom of glue ear is temporary hearing loss. Glue ear often occurs after ear infections, but it can also occur when a blockage affects your child’s Eustachian tube. Glue ear frequently goes away on its own, but some cases may require surgery.
Glue ear is a common condition that occurs when fluid builds up in your child’s middle ear, which is the space behind their eardrum. The medical terms for glue ear are otitis media with effusion (OME) or secretory otitis media. Glue ear can affect one or both of your child’s ears. It often follows an ear infection, but it can happen for other reasons. The condition is usually temporary, but long-term glue ear can affect your child’s hearing.
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Glue ear is most common in babies and children younger than 6 years old. But glue ear can occur in adults too.
Glue ear is a very common childhood condition. One in every five preschool-aged children may have glue ear at any one time. About eight out of every 10 children will develop the condition some time before they turn 10 years old.
To hear normally, your child’s middle ears need to be clear and full of air. Air travels through your child’s Eustachian tubes, which connect your child’s middle ears to their throat. The Eustachian tubes help drain fluid and prevent it from filling up in your child’s ears. The fluid drains from the Eustachian tubes and your child swallows it unconsciously.
Eustachian tubes in children are wider and more horizontal than they are in adults, so they don’t work as well. When your child’s Eustachian tubes have a blockage, air can’t enter their middle ears. When this occurs, the cells lining their middle ears start to make a thick, sticky fluid. This is where the name “glue ear” came from.
When fluid blocks your child’s middle ears, it can be harder for their eardrums to vibrate and pass sound through to their inner ears. This can make it more difficult for your child to hear.
The most common symptom of glue ear in children and adults is hearing loss. It can affect one or both ears at the same time. It may seem like you’re wearing earplugs, muffling the noises around you. Prolonged hearing loss in your child may cause a speech delay and affect their language development. For instance, they may not clearly pronounce words.
Your child may also experience ear pain or hear a buzzing or ringing sound (tinnitus). They may have a feeling of pressure, fullness or popping in their ears when swallowing.
Young children may not be able to tell you they can’t hear, so you’ll have to look for signs of the condition. Glue ear symptoms in your baby or toddler may include:
Glue ear frequently occurs after ear infections. This happens when fluid that built up during the infection remains after it has cleared. But glue ear doesn’t always occur due to ear infections. A blockage in your child’s Eustachian tubes can cause the condition for many reasons. Blockages may occur due to:
Ear wax buildup doesn’t cause glue ear. Getting water in your ear while showering or swimming doesn’t cause the condition either.
Your child’s healthcare provider will examine your child’s ears to diagnose glue ear. They’ll use a small scope to look for fluid in your child’s ears.
Your child’s provider may have you watch your child’s condition to see if it clears up on its own. If your child’s symptoms continue for several months, they’ll recommend you return for testing and treatment.
If your child’s healthcare provider recommends testing, they’ll refer you to a specialist such as an audiologist or an ear, nose and throat doctor.
The specialist will examine your child’s ears using a tympanometry test. This type of test measures how well your child’s eardrums can move. They’ll place a special device with a microphone and a sound source into your child’s ear canal. Sound waves bounce off your child’s eardrum as the device compares the pressure in their ear canal. If your child has fluid in their middle ears, their eardrums won’t move correctly. The specialist uses a graph called a tympanogram to see the results.
The specialist may also perform a hearing test. The hearing test will check to see if the fluid is affecting your child’s hearing. Hearing tests can determine how severe any hearing loss is and what may be causing it.
Glue ear often goes away naturally without treatment. Your child’s healthcare provider will usually wait several months to see if the fluid clears up on its own. If your child’s symptoms don’t improve naturally, treatment options may include:
If your child is experiencing any pain along with the buildup of fluid, they may have an ear infection. In this case, their provider may prescribe an antibiotic to clear it up.
Your child’s specialist may perform a surgery called myringotomy. During this procedure, the specialist will make a small cut in your child’s eardrum to allow fluid to drain from their middle ear. The specialist may place a tiny, hollow ear tube in the cut. The tube helps balance the pressure in their eardrum with the pressure in their middle ear. It also provides drainage from your child’s middle ear to their outer ear. The tube usually falls out on its own within a year.
If enlarged adenoids are the cause of your child’s glue ear, their specialist may perform an adenoidectomy. Specialists often do this procedure at the same time as a myringotomy. During an adenoidectomy, your child’s specialist will remove their enlarged adenoids.
Hearing aids are devices that make sounds louder. To help with temporary hearing loss, your child’s healthcare provider may recommend hearing aids. Children often use them while they’re waiting for glue ear to resolve. They also use them when a myringotomy isn’t possible.
Your child most likely won’t experience any issues after a myringotomy. You may see discharge coming from your child’s ear for a couple days after glue ear surgery. If discharge lasts longer than a few days, reach out to your child’s healthcare provider.
You may be able to treat your child’s glue ear at home. Glue ear exercises you can have your child try to temporarily clear their middle ear include:
The Valsalva maneuver is a breathing technique that your child can use to try to unclog their ears. To perform the maneuver, have your child pinch their nostrils and keep their mouth closed. Then tell them to try forcibly blowing air out through their nostrils. Your child may feel their ears “pop.”
The Otovent® glue ear treatment helps drain fluid from your child’s ears. Your child sticks a nasal balloon nozzle in one of their nostrils while blocking their other nostril with a finger. Then they attempt to inflate the balloon with their nose. This can help drain their Eustachian tube by forcing air from the back of their throat to their middle ear.
You can prevent your child from getting glue ear by reducing their risk of ear infections. Ways to reduce your child’s chances of developing an ear infection include:
Glue ear is a very common condition that usually resolves on its own. But if symptoms continue for several months, your child may experience hearing loss. This can affect their speech and language development. These issues can lead to learning problems as well as communication and socialization problems. However, even if fluid remains in your child’s ears for months, they usually won’t experience long-term hearing loss.
Most cases of glue ear go away on their own within two to three weeks. Sometimes, the condition persists for several months. If it hasn’t resolved on its own within three months, speak with your child’s healthcare provider about appropriate treatment.
If your child has tubes, their healthcare provider may recommend keeping their ears dry for two to four weeks after surgery. That means no swimming or showers. Your child can take a bath as long as their ears don’t get wet. After that time frame, your child shouldn’t have any restrictions on bathing or swimming pools.
Some children may have to take extra precautions if they’re at a higher risk of infection. If so, your child’s healthcare provider may recommend:
Most children won’t experience any issues with flying if they have glue ear. But you’ll want to check with your child’s healthcare provider about your child’s specific condition. Fluid in your child’s middle ears can expand during take-off and landing, which can cause discomfort. This is called airplane ear. Eating and drinking during take-off and landing can help open your child’s Eustachian tubes, which can prevent discomfort.
If your child has glue ear, you may have lots of questions about the condition. Your child’s healthcare provider can answer anything you’re concerned about. Questions you may want to ask your child’s provider include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Glue ear, or otitis media with effusion, is a common condition in children. Most cases resolve on their own. But fluid buildup in your child’s ears can cause hearing loss, which can lead to speech delay and language issues. So if you notice any signs of the condition, make an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider. They can diagnose your child and provide proper treatment. The good news is most children don’t have any long-term hearing loss or speech issues from this condition.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/19/2022.
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