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

  1. Glue ear occurs when the middle ear, which normally contains air, gets blocked and fills with a glue-like fluid. 
  2. The blockage 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. It usually gets better without treatment but sometimes can cause mild to moderate hearing loss.  Hearing loss for prolonged periods of time during the early years may affect speech and language development
  5. If you think your baby or child has glue ear, or you are worried about their hearing, take them your doctor, practice nurse or mobile hearing clinic.

What are the symptoms of glue ear?

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

Children may not be able to express their hearing loss. 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.

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 development are normal your family doctor may simply recommend regular appointments, so they can check your child's ears. As children grow older they are less likely to have glue ear. This is because their Eustachian tubes get bigger and work better. The Eustachian tubes connect the space behind the eardrum (middle ear) of each ear to the back of the nose.

Grommets

If glue ear lasts more than 3 months, or your child gets glue ear often or their hearing is affected, grommets may be considered by your doctor. 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 easily and can naturally let air into the middle ear.

Hearing loss

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. 

  • Look at your child when you speak, and speak slowly, clearly and slightly louder than normal.
  • Try to make sure your child can see your face when you are speaking to them and try to minimise background noise.
  • It can be helpful to get their attention before you speak to them.
  • Try to be patient if your child’s behaviour changes, as it may be caused by the hearing problem.
  • 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.
  • 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, 2015
Grommets (tympanostomy or ventilation tubes) KidsHealth, NZ, 2015
Your child's speech and hearing milestones National Foundation for the Deaf, NZ 

References

  1. Ear infections, earache and glue ear HealthEd, NZ, 2016
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 02 Apr 2015