Glue ear

Introduction

Glue ear is a common childhood condition where the middle ear becomes filled with fluid. The medical term for glue ear is otitis media with effusion (OME).

It's estimated that one in five children around the age of two will be affected by glue ear at any given time, and about 8 in every 10 children will have had glue ear at least once by the time they're 10 years old.

The main symptom of glue ear is some hearing loss in one or both ears. This is usually similar to what you experience when you put your hands over your ears.

Signs that your child may be having problems hearing include: 

  • struggling to keep up with conversations
  • becoming aggravated because they're trying harder to hear
  • regularly turning up the volume on the television 

Contact your GP if you have any concerns about your child's hearing.

Read more about the symptoms of glue ear and diagnosing glue ear.

What causes glue ear?

The middle ear is the part of the ear directly behind the eardrum. It contains three tiny bones that carry sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear. The build-up of fluid associated with glue ear prevents these bones moving freely, which affects hearing because it means they can't pass sound vibrations to the inner ear.

Exactly what causes this build-up of fluid is unclear, although it seems to be related to a problem with the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat (Eustachian tube). One of the main functions of the Eustachian tube is to help drain fluid from the middle ear.

It's thought that problems with the Eustachian tube may be caused by things like a previous ear infection, smoke irritation or allergies. Glue ear isn't caused by a build-up of ear wax, or by getting water in the ear after swimming or showering.

Other factors that are also thought to increase the risk of getting glue ear include:

  • growing up in a household where adults smoke
  • being bottlefed rather than breastfed as a baby
  • having siblings (brothers and sisters) who've had the condition

Read more about the causes of glue ear and preventing glue ear.

Treating glue ear

Most cases of glue ear don't require treatment as the condition will improve by itself, usually within three months.

Treatment is usually only recommended when symptoms last longer than three months and the hearing loss is thought to be significant enough to interfere with a child's speech and language development.

In these circumstances, glue ear can usually be treated using minor surgery, which involves placing small tubes (grommets) in the ear to help drain away the fluid.

Read more about treating glue ear.

Complications of glue ear

Possible complications of glue ear include ear infections and, where hearing loss is more severe, a minor temporary delay in speech and language development.

Some of the problems associated with glue ear get better by themselves quite quickly, although further treatment may occasionally be necessary.

Read more about the complications of glue ear.

Adults with glue ear

Glue ear can occasionally develop in adults. It's diagnosed and treated in much the same way as children.

If symptoms show no signs of improving after about three months, grommets can be put inside the ear to drain the fluid from it.

Last updated: 10 August 2015

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