Glue ear is when your middle ear fills with fluid where normally there is air. This fluid then disturbs the vibrations in the eardrum making it harder to hear. Also known as OME (otitis media with effusion) or secretory otitis media, glue ear can affect one or both ears and is more common in children than adults.
Glue ear symptoms
Symptoms of glue ear include:
Temporary hearing loss
Tinnitus - buzzing or ringing sounds
‘Popping’ ears also known as ‘barotrauma’
Adults should be able to identify these symptoms quite easily, but it might be more tricky for children to explain how their ears feel.
Keep an eye out for problems with your child’s hearing at home and at nursery or school.
Common signs of childhood hearing loss include:
Mishearing you – particularly if you’re not face-to-face
Having the television turned up loud or sitting closer to it
Struggling to hear in noisy situations
Difficulty paying attention or concentrating
Having issues interacting with other children
Slower speech development
Behavioural issues such as frustration and irritability
Poor sleep due to ear pain
And, in some cases, their balance might be affected too.
If you think your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, then it’s best to see your GP who can have a closer look at their ears.
Treatments for glue ear
In most cases glue ear will resolve itself but it’s best to ensure that your GP is keeping an eye on the situation. Regular check-ups are a good idea until your child grows out of the condition – most cases are resolved in a year.
Unlike other ailments, glue ear cannot be treated with: antibiotics, decongestants, steroids, changes in diet or complementary therapies.
If glue ear is a persistent problem the following treatments might be offered:
- Grommets – a surgical procedure that involves placing a small tube into the ear to allow the fluid to drain.
- Adenoidectomy – often done at the same time as inserting grommets. This procedure involves removing the adenoids to improve hearing and reduce the recurrence of glue ear.
- Hearing aids – if the child’s hearing is severely affected, hearing aids might be an option instead of surgery.
What to do if your child has glue ear
Time is key to treating glue ear, but if your child is struggling to hear there are ways you can help:
Speak slowly, clearly and face-to-face
Try to reduce background noise
Tell your child’s teachers or childcare team so that they can adapt their communication methods
What causes glue ear?
Glue ear is caused by a problem with the Eustachian tube which results in fluid building up in the middle ear. Sometime glue ear is caused by an ear infection or as a result of a cough or cold that means extra mucus is produced.
How is glue ear diagnosed?
To look in the ear, your GP will use an otoscope to magnify and light up the ear canal and ear drum. They may also do tympanometry which uses air pressure to test if the ear drum can move – if there is fluid present, the ear drum won’t move.
Your GP will also look at medical histories and, in particular, if ear infections are prevalent.
In some cases, you or your child might be referred for a hearing test or to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Glue ear in babies
Babies and children aged under five are particularly susceptible to glue ear because their Eustachian tube (the one that drains fluid from the middle ear) is small and still developing.
Ear infections and milk intolerance can also result in excess mucus which then leads to glue ear.
If your child has had a cold for more than two weeks, keep an eye on their ears and for signs that they are hurting or that their hearing is affected.