If you have noticed that your hearing has been a little muted lately, then you might be suffering from glue ear.

But what is glue ear, and how can it impact your hearing? 

This condition can affect both adults and children and is more common than you might think, especially in kids.

Let’s look at some glue ear symptoms, and what to do if you think you or your child might be suffering from it.

What Is Glue Ear?

Glue ear is also known as sticky ear, or otitis media with effusion. The name is given to a build-up of fluid in the middle ear, behind the eardrum. It is called “glue” or “sticky” because the fluid itself is a thick, glue-like fluid.

This sticky fluid prevents the eardrum from vibrating properly, which can cause hearing issues. This space behind the eardrum is normally filled with air, so having the fluid trapped in the space can cause the symptoms of glue ear.

It’s common in young children and can last for weeks or months, and can affect hearing, speech, learning and behaviour.

Glue ear is the most common cause of hearing impairment in childhood, where it usually follows an episode of ear infection such as acute otitis media (AOM).

Did you know that glue ear is the most common cause of hearing problems in children? Although it is more common in children, glue ear in adults can still occur, so it is important to know what you need to look out for.

child upset with glue ear

Glue Ear Symptoms

The main symptom is often mild to moderate hearing loss. Glue ear may cause pain, but many children have no immediately concerning symptoms at all. Therefore it’s a good idea to get your child’s ears checked at least once per year between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. 

Here is what to look out for if you suspect you or your child might be suffering from glue ear.

  • Glue ear and hearing loss are connected, so you might notice hearing issues
  • You or your child is talking louder than usual
  • You or your child have trouble hearing others speaking at a normal volume
  • There might be a ringing or buzzing sound in the ear
  • Pressure or discomfort in the ear
  • Change of behaviour in your child (you might think that they are ignoring you)
  • Your child becoming increasingly frustrated
  • Your child having issues with speech or language
  • You’re tired more than usual
  • Balance issues or clumsiness
  • Trouble falling asleep or disrupted sleep

What to Look out for as a Parent or Carer

Some children can experience developmental, psychological and behavioural effects as a result of the impaired hearing caused by glue ear.

Children may have learning difficulties if they cannot properly hear their teacher or class mates. They may also become frustrated, quiet and withdrawn because they have trouble following what is happening around them.

If a child becomes less responsive when being spoken to and they don’t have direct eye contact with a parent or teacher, this is possibly a sign of glue ear. In the case of smaller children and babies, they may become less responsive to sounds.

Glue Ear Treatment

Depending on your or your child’s symptoms, you might want to see a general practitioner, audiologist or an ear nurse.

Glue ear is diagnosed with a simple ear exam. A magnified scope with a light attached to the end is used to look inside your or your child’s ear. This scope will help identify if there is a fluid build-up in the middle ear and if an infection is present.

Your healthcare professional will either recommend waiting to see if the condition clears up on its own, or they might suggest treatment. Although glue ear can clear up on its own, sometimes treatment is needed in order to prevent any permanent or severe hearing problems.

Grommets

A common child glue ear treatment is grommets. A grommet is a thin tube inserted into the ear. This tube allows air to pass through to the eardrum, helping to improve any hearing issues caused by the fluid build-up. This involves a minor operation under anesthetic. Grommets usually fall out on their own within a year.

Autoinflation

This treatment actually involves a balloon. It encourages you or your child to blow up a special medical balloon using a single nostril.

The objective here is to increase air pressure in the eustachian tube, encouraging it to open up and allow more air to flow through.

This needs to be done several times a day and is not usually recommended to children under the age of 3.

Adenoidectomy

This surgery might be recommended to those suffering from chronic glue ear. During this procedure, the adenoid glands are removed, as these might be a cause of fluid build-up.

When the adenoids become inflamed, the eustachian tubes also become inflamed, adding to the fluid.

Hearing Aids

If you or your child has severe glue ear, then hearing aids might be recommended if surgery for grommets is delayed or not an option. These are usually only worn until the glue ear improves.

Glue Ear Exercises

There are conservative glue ear exercises you or your child can do to help alleviate some of the symptoms of the condition.

This includes nose-blowing, yawning, and swallowing movements. This opens up the eustachian tube, which allows extra pressure to push air into the middle ear. Try to avoid sniffing if possible.

Glue Ear Prevention

If glue ear continues for more than a few months, there is a risk of it causing permanent damage to the hearing. When a child has chronic glue ear, they might have a higher risk of suffering from delayed speech.

If you are wondering how to prevent glue ear, then there are some things you can do to lessen the chances. Although it is difficult to prevent, especially in young children, you can help prevent chronic glue ear by staying as healthy as possible.

This includes supporting you and your child’s immune system through healthy lifestyle choices, limiting exposure to smoke and other similar inhaled irritants.

What do I do if I suspect my child has glue ear?

Hover here to find out!

Book an appointment with a medical professional

Contact your General Practitioner
Call Healthline on 0800 611 116
OR
Contact Your Nearest Ear Nurse

This page was written by Ron Trounson Charge Audiologist at Ear Health on 19 March 2020 and last updated on 3 March 2021.

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