Glue ear, known as adhesive otitis, is a condition that occurs when the middle part of your ear fills with fluid. This part of the ear is located behind the eardrum. The fluid can become thick and sticky, like glue.
Overtime, glue ear is likely to lead to a middle ear infection. It can also make it difficult for you to hear. Such complications can become serious, so it’s important to identify and treat glue ear promptly.
Glue ear happens when thick fluid builds up inside your middle ear. As with general ear infections, glue ear tends to be more common in children.
This is because the eustachian tubes deep inside the ear are narrower than an adult’s and more prone to becoming clogged. These tubes are responsible for helping the ear maintain healthy space free of excess fluids.
Normally, the space behind the middle ear is only filled with air. But sometimes fluid can build up in the space as a result of an illness, such as a cold or virus.
Severe allergies may also cause such issues inside the middle ear. In such cases, the eustachian tubes can become swollen and constricted, leading to fluid buildup.
Other risk factors for glue ear include:
- age, especially under age 2
- being bottle-fed
- daycare settings, due to a higher risk of germ exposure
- seasonal allergies
- poor air quality
- tobacco smoke exposure
Hearing difficulty is the most common symptom in children. In fact, a child with glue ear may not have any complaints at all. You might notice that your child:
- talks louder than usual
- has difficulty hearing others speak at normal volumes
- can’t hear noises from far away
- asks for people to repeat themselves
- turns up volume on electronic devices
- complains about ringing or buzzing in their ears
Overall, adults with glue ear may have similar symptoms as children. However, you might also feel pressure deep in your ear and tiredness from overall discomfort. Glue ear can sometimes cause pain, too.
Glue ear that persists longer than a few months can cause permanent hearing damage. Young children with chronic glue ear are also at a higher risk of delayed speech and language.
Glue ear vs. ear infection
Hearing loss can also be a symptom of an ear infection. However, glue ear and ear infection aren’t the same thing. Unlike glue ear, an ear infection is quite painful and may be accompanied by fever and fluid drainage. An ear infection requires medical treatment to prevent hearing loss and eardrum damage.
Glue ear is diagnosed with an ear exam at your doctor’s office. They’ll use a magnified scope with a light attached to it to look inside your ear. This device can help them see where there’s fluid buildup.
If glue ear keeps coming back, or if it lasts for longer than three months, you may need to see a hearing specialist.
Upon examination, your doctor will also be able to tell if your glue ear has turned into an infection.
Most cases of glue ear go away on their own. However, glue ear that turns into a middle ear infection may be treated with antibiotics.
One way you can alleviate fluid buildup at home is through autoinflation. This involves blowing up a balloonlike device with each nostril. For best results, autoinflation is done several times a day. This method isn’t recommended for children under age 3.
Hearing aids and speech therapy
Severe or chronic cases of glue ear may require treatment from a specialist, such as an ear nose and throat (ENT) doctor.
Temporary hearing aids may be used to help improve auditory skills when middle ear fluid is present. If lack of hearing has impacted your child’s developmental milestones, then your doctor might also recommend speech therapy.
Chronic glue ear is sometimes treated with a type of surgery called an adenoidectomy. During this procedure, your doctor removes your adenoid glands from behind your nose that may be contributing to fluid buildup in your ear.
These glands are connected to the base of the eustachian tubes. When the adenoids become irritated and inflamed, the eustachian tubes can follow suit, thereby leading to fluid buildup and possible ear infections.
During and after surgery, you’ll need to wear small tubes in your ears called grommets, commonly referred to as ear tubes or pressure equalizer tubes. These keep your eardrum open by allowing fluid to drain away from behind it. Grommets are only temporary though, and they usually fall out on their own within a year.
Glue ear may be difficult to prevent, especially in young children. One way to help prevent chronic glue ear is to try to stay healthy and support your or your child’s immune system as it’s developing.
Also, identify and treat allergies and limit exposure to smoke and similar inhaled irritants.
While glue ear can present serious complications, this common childhood condition tends to resolve on its own in many cases. It can take as long as three months to fully clear up. As fluid drains from the ears, you’re hearing will improve on its own.
If you notice any significant hearing difficulties, signs of an ear infection, or if your glue ear lasts longer than three months, then it’s time to see a doctor. Once you’ve had glue ear, you’ll need to see your doctor regularly to make sure more fluid doesn’t build up in the middle ear and cause hearing issues.