Glue ear

Introduction

Glue ear is a common but poorly understood childhood condition where fluid builds up in the middle ear. The medical term for glue ear is otitis media with effusion.

The most common symptom of glue ear is some loss of hearing, which can range from slight to mild to moderate. The hearing loss of glue ear is similar to what you would experience if you put your fingers in your ears.

Glue ear is usually a self-limiting condition which means that it will get better by itself without the need for treatment.

The middle ear

The middle ear is directly behind the eardrum. It is made up of three tiny lever-like bones that carry sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.

In cases of glue ear, the build up of fluid prevents the three tiny bones in the ear - the stirrup (stapes), anvil (incus), and hammer (malleus) - from moving freely.

These three bones are responsible for transmitting sound vibrations to the inner ear. However, if they are unable to transmit the vibrations, sounds coming into the ear can become muffled.

How common is glue ear?

Glue ear is a common condition in young children, with cases being particularly widespread in children who are around two years of age. The number of cases of glue ear decreases in children who are over six years of age.

Cases of glue ear are more common during the winter months. Around 50 per cent of cases of glue ear develop after a previous ear infection (otitis media).

The exact cause (or causes) of glue ear are unknown. However, it is known that glue ear is not the result of water getting into the ear through activities such as swimming and showering, or due to a build up of ‘ear wax’.

Outlook

The outlook for children with glue ear is usually very good, with half of all cases being resolved within three months.

Treatment is usually only recommended when symptoms last longer than three months, and the degree of hearing loss is thought to be significant enough to potentially interfere with a child’s language and speech development. In these circumstances, glue ear can usually be treated using minor surgery.

The most common complication of glue ear is that the fluid in the ear becomes infected by bacteria (otitis media). Otitis media is usually a mild type of infection that will pass within 2-3 days.

Last updated: 04 October 2011

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