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Glue ear - What is glue ear?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


After an ear infection or a cold, some children get fluid trapped inside their ear. This can stop them hearing properly. This condition is often called glue ear.

We've brought together the best research on glue ear and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor about what treatments are best for your child.

Glue ear often follows an ear infection. To learn more, see our articles on Ear infection.

Does your child pay less attention or seem more withdrawn than normal? Or has he or she become fidgety or unruly? If so, your child could be having hearing problems because of fluid trapped inside the ear.

ome-toddler_default.jpgThere are lots of names for this condition. You may hear it called otitis media with effusion or OME. More commonly it's known as glue ear.

The condition is difficult to spot, although it often follows an ear infection or a cold. It doesn't cause obvious symptoms such as pain or fever. And you can't see the fluid because it doesn't come out of the ear.

Glue ear is very common among young children, especially between the ages of 1 year and 3 years old. But older children and adults can get it too. About 80 in 100 children have had glue ear by the time they are 4 years old.[1]

The good news about glue ear is that it often clears up on its own within a few months. But in some children, it can drag on or come back, so the child's hearing is affected for long periods. If your child is learning to talk, glue ear may delay his or her speech. And if your child can't hear properly, it can affect his or her behaviour and cause problems at school.[2] If this happens, it's important to get treatment.

Key points for parents about glue ear

  • Glue ear is very common in young children. It's the most common cause of poor hearing in children.

  • Glue ear is difficult to spot because it doesn't have any obvious symptoms. But it often follows an ear infection or a cold.

  • Many children with glue ear get better on their own, usually within a few months.

  • Some children get glue ear for long periods and some keep on getting it. This can affect hearing and learning to speak. If this happens, it's important to get treatment.

  • The main treatment for glue ear is surgery to put in grommets.

The ears and how they work

To understand what happens when your child gets glue ear, it's helpful to know a little about how the ears work.[3]glueear1_default.jpg

  • Your outer ear is the part you can see. It 'catches' sounds.

  • The hole in the middle of your outer ear is the entrance to your ear canal. It carries sounds into your ear.

  • Stretched across the end of your ear canal is your eardrum. This thin tissue moves when sounds reach it and the sounds are passed on.

  • Behind your eardrum is your middle ear. It's usually filled with air, although it also makes a thin, watery fluid. It has three tiny bones that move when sounds reach them.

  • The bones carry sounds to your inner ear. Here, nerves pick up the sounds and send signals to your brain. (Your inner ear also helps you keep your balance.)

  • Your brain translates these signals and recognises them as sounds.

  • Your eustachian tube connects your middle ear to the back of your nose (just above the roof of your mouth). It keeps the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum equal. This tube is closed most of the time. But when you swallow or yawn, it opens briefly. This lets air flow into the tube, so that the air pressure inside your middle ear and outside your head is the same.

  • Your eustachian tube also lets any fluid in your middle ear drain off down your throat. This helps to remove any germs that get into your middle ear.

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Last Updated: December 05, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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