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Glue ear

Also known as adhesive otitis media, glue ear is a condition that affects the middle ear. Glue ear is most common in children but adults can also develop the condition.

What is glue ear?

Glue ear is a condition caused by a build-up of fluid/mucous behind the eardrum within the middle ear. It can affect one or both ears and can lead to a middle ear infection if left untreated.

The fluid can become glue-like, thick and sticky, hence its name, and often causes temporary hearing difficulties.

What are the symptoms of glue ear?

The most common symptom of glue ear is difficulty hearing out of both or one ear. Glue ear also causes:

  • Earache
  • A blocked sensation
  • A symptom called tinnitus with ringing/whooshing/buzzing noises in the ear

Young children with glue ear may not be able to communicate that they’re experiencing hearing loss, but they may demonstrate the following behaviours if they’re experiencing glue ear:

  • Speaking with less clarity than normal (delayed speech development)
  • Speaking more loudly than normal
  • Asking for the television to be turned up
  • Mishearing other people or not hearing them at all
  • Acting irritable, distanced or tired

What causes glue ear?

Glue ear most commonly occurs after a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, such as a cold or flu. Having an upper respiratory tract infection can cause fluid build up in the middle ear, which is normally just filled with air. The fluid usually drains readily but due to the associated congestion and inflammation with a cold or flu the fluid remains trapped.

Allergies can also cause glue ear, as they can cause the eustachian tubes (that help drain fluid) within the middle ear to become inflamed and swollen, causing fluid to build up.

Other causes of glue ear include:

  • Exposure to cigarette smoke or environmental pollutants
  • Being in close contact with other young children who may have viral infections, such as at school or nursery
  • Being bottle fed

How is glue ear diagnosed?

If you think that you or your child may have glue ear, then your GP can take a look inside the ears to check for the presence of fluid using a small instrument with a light attached to the end.

How is glue ear treated?

Glue ear can be left to clear up on its own, sometimes with regular monitoring by your GP. In some cases (and usually only in those over the age of three years), a procedure called autoinflation is recommended.

Autoinflation can involve either regular swallowing whilst holding the nostrils closed or using an inflatable balloon device in each nostril. If glue ear causes an ear infection, your GP may prescribe antibiotics.

Glue ear usually gets better within three months, but any longer than that, and you or child may be referred to a specialist ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. In cases where other treatments haven’t helped to relieve glue ear and hearing loss, medical devices called grommets may be surgically placed into the ear.

Grommets are small, thin tubes that are placed inside the ear to help drain fluid away. They will usually fall out naturally after six months to a year, by which time, the glue ear should have cleared up.

In some cases, an adenoidectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the adenoids (small glands at the back of the nose) is also recommended.

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

This content has been checked and approved by

Mr Harry Powell  ›

Mr Harry Powell is an ENT Surgeon at King Edward VII’s Hospital.

Find your specialist in glue ear at King Edward VII's Hospital

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