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Glue Ear

What Is Glue Ear?

Last modified: 
16/04/2013 - 12:55

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Glue ear is a painless condition in which thick, sticky fluid collects behind the eardrum. The fluid blocks the middle part of the ear and can cause impaired hearing. It usually affects children and is also known as:

  • Chronic otitis media with effusion (OME)
  • Secretory otitis media
  • Middle-ear effusion

The thick fluid prevents normal movement of the small bones in the middle ear that are necessary for hearing. Glue ear is common in children because of the nature of their eustachian tubes, the tubes that connect the ears with the back of the throat.

Different kinds of fluid may be present behind the eardrum, ranging from a yellow liquid to a thick, white material that resembles glue (hence the name, glue ear).

Left untreated, glue ear can:

  • Cause temporary hearing loss
  • Contribute to delayed speech development in young children
  • Affect a child's behavior and educational progress
  • In rare cases, cause permanent damage to hearing

About half of all cases of glue ear will resolve on their own within three months. About 90% of cases resolve within six months, and about 90% of cases resolve within three months. It is important to have the condition evaluated by a physician, because in the time it may take to resolve on its own, glue ear may affect a child's speech development or behavior.

Need To Know:

Having glue ear is like listening to the world with both fingers stuck in your ears. Children with glue ear cannot always hear everything that is said to them. But young children may not be able to explain the problem. Many become irritable and just want to be left alone. Any child who appears not to be hearing well should be evaluated by a physician and have a hearing test.

Nice To Know:

Q: How is glue ear different from an ear infection?

A: Glue ear is not painful and does not cause the symptoms of a middle-ear infection (such as fever, crying, inability to sleep soundly, or tugging at the ear). Instead of pain, the child may experience a feeling of stuffiness in the ears and hearing loss. Glue ear may develop within weeks of an ear infection, but often the cause is unknown.

Understanding How The Ear Works

The ear is divided into three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.

The middle ear is a small space between the outer and inner ear. It is separated from the outer ear by the eardrum. It contains three delicate bones (the hammer, anvil, and stirrup) that are important in hearing.

Here is how hearing works:

Sound creates vibrations in the air that are picked up by the eardrum.

When the eardrum vibrates, the tiny bones inside the middle ear also vibrate, transmitting the vibrations across the middle ear to the inner ear.

This causes fluid in the inner ear to move.

When fluid moves in the inner ear, it stimulates the nerve cells inside this part of the ear.

These nerve cells then send impulses to the brain along the "hearing nerve" (the cochlea nerve) and we then hear the sound.

A tube called the eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. When functioning properly, eustachian tubes do the following:

  • Equalize air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. When you yawn or swallow and your ears "pop," it is your eustachian tubes adjusting the air pressure in your middle ear. Negative air pressure in the middle ear causes pain and a "full" sensation in the ear.
  • Allow drainage from the middle ear to the throat.
  • Protect the middle ear from germs that may enter the back of the nose and throat.

Facts about glue ear

  • Glue ear is a common problem, affecting up to one in ten children at some time in their lives.
  • Glue ear often occurs in both ears and may be difficult to detect, since it is not painful and doesn't cause symptoms of an ear infection.
  • It most often affects children between the ages of 2 and 5 years, but it can happen in all ages, including adulthood.
  • At around 8 years of age, the eustachian tube becomes a more efficient to aerate to the middle ear cavity, and glue ear is much less common.
  • Glue ear is more common in boys than in girls.
  • It most often occurs in winter and spring.
  • About half of all cases of glue ear will resolve on their own, without treatment, within three months.
  • Once a child has had one episode of glue ear, the chances are increased that it will happen again, especially if the first episode was before age 2.
  • If glue ear involves both ears and persists for several months, especially before the age of 3 or 4, it can interfere with normal speech development.

 

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.