Glue ear

Also known as otitis media with effusion (OME) or secretory otitis media (SOM)

If your child has glue ear, it means there is fluid in the space behind the ear drum. The main symptom of glue ear is reduced hearing.

Key points about glue ear

  1. Glue ear occurs when the middle ear, which normally contains air, gets blocked and fills with a glue-like fluid. 
  2. Glue ear may be caused by a cold, blocked nose, swollen adenoids, allergies or tobacco smoke.
  3. It's most common in young children but can occur in adults. Glue ear can affect one or both ears and is easily missed as there is little or no pain.
  4. Glue ear usually gets better without treatment.
  5. Sometimes glue ear can cause hearing loss. Hearing loss for prolonged periods of time during the early years may affect speech and language development.
  6. If you think your child has glue ear, or you are worried about their hearing, take them your doctor, practice nurse or hearing clinic.

What are the symptoms of glue ear?

The most important symptom of glue ear is hearing loss. Glue ear is usually painless, so you may not know there’s a problem. Adults may notice a blocked feeling or reduced hearing similar to wearing ear plugs.

Children may not be able to tell you they can't hear. Signs to watch out for include:

  • not showing interest in sounds
  • not listening or seeming to ignore you
  • asking for things to be repeated
  • wanting the volume turned up
  • problems with speech and language development
  • although the fluid doesn't usually cause pain, sleep disturbance can occur.

Older children are less likely to have glue ear because the tube that allows air into the middle ear (the Eustachian tube) is bigger and works better. The Eustachian tubes connect the space behind the eardrum (middle ear) of each ear to the back of the nose.

What is the treatment for glue ear?

There are no medicines to treat glue ear. It mostly gets better on its own, but it can take weeks or months to clear up.

If hearing and speech development are normal, your family doctor may simply recommend regular appointments to check your child's ears. 

Will my child need grommets for glue ear?

If glue ear lasts more than 3 months, reoccurs often or affects hearing, grommets may help. Grommets are small plastic tubes that are put into the eardrum to let air back into the middle ear. This is done in hospital. Once the air can get back into the middle ear, hearing usually returns to normal.

Grommets aren’t a permanent cure for glue ear. Over time, they will come out of the eardrum, and the hole they were keeping open will heal. Hopefully, the child’s Eustachian tubes will have grown larger by then so that they don’t get blocked so easily and can naturally let air into the middle ear.

Hearing loss caused by glue ear

Hearing loss over a long period can cause problems in your child’s development of speech and language skills. If your child seems to be getting worse or develops other symptoms, take them back to the doctor. 

How can I help my child with glue ear?

If your child has glue ear they may not be able to hear you. 

  • Get your child’s attention before you speak to them.
  • Try to minimise background noise.
  • Make sure your child can see your face when you are speaking.
  • Look at your child when you speak, and speak slowly, clearly and slightly louder than normal.
  • Understand that hearing problems may cause your child’s behaviour to change.
  • If your child goes to school or preschool, tell the teacher about their glue ear and hearing problems. The teacher can help by seating your child at the front of the class. 

How can I prevent glue ear?

It is not easy to prevent glue ear, but the following may help reduce the risk:

  • Breastfeed your baby for as long as you can – breastfeeding for 3 to 6 months is thought to be protective against the early development of ear infections. This may be because breastfeeding boosts the immune system (the body's defence against potentially harmful germs).
  • Hold baby upright if bottle feeding.
  • Avoid using a pacifier (dummy) – after the age of 11 months dummy use increases the risk of your child developing glue ear.
  • Be smoke-free.
  • Keep rooms warm and dry.
  • Always see your doctor, nurse or mobile hearing clinic if your baby or child has sore ears.
  • Make sure your child gets the B4 School Check and has their hearing tested.
  • Get your child vaccinated and keep them up-to-date with all vaccinations.

Learn more

Glue ear KidsHealth, NZ
Grommets (tympanostomy or ventilation tubes) KidsHealth, NZ
Your child's speech and hearing milestones National Foundation for the Deaf, NZ 

References

  1. Ear infections, earache and glue ear HealthEd, NZ, 2016
  2. Otitis media – a common childhood illness BPAC, NZ, 2012

Reviewed by

Dr Sharon Leitch is a general practitioner and clinical research training fellow in the Department of General Practice and Rural Health at the University of Otago. Her area of research is patient safety in primary care and safe medicine use.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Sharon Leitch, GP Last reviewed: 02 Apr 2015