Glue ear

What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is a glue ear?

Glue ear is a condition common in childhood where sticky fluid builds up in the middle ear, leading to partial hearing loss and - as a result - speech delay. It's often the delay in starting to speak that brings parents to the GP or health visitor with their child, worried that there's some developmental problem. Although there's no certainty of what causes glue ear, it's thought to develop when the Eustacian tube isn't working properly (the Eustacian tube is a narrow canal connecting the middle ear to the back of the nose). Its function is to keep the air pressure equal on both sides of the eardrum, and when it fails, pressure drops and the space is filled with fluid that leaks in from the surrounding tissue.

The medical term for glue ear is 'otitis media with effusion'. The build up of fluid in glue ear interferes with normal movement of the three tiny bones that transmit sound vibrations to the inner ear. The condition is very common, particularly in pre-school children, but much less common in children over the age of six. It's thought that around 90% of children will have had at least one episode of glue ear by the time they are 10 years old. In about half of all cases, glue ear follows an ear infection.

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Around half of glue ear cases get better without treatment within three months, although affected children might have repeat mild ear infections during this time.

What are the symptoms of Glue ear?

Hearing loss ranging from slight to moderate; speech delay.

What are the treatments and remedies of Glue ear?

Treatment is usually only offered when glue ear lasts for longer than three months and if there's a risk of delayed speech. In these cases, a device called a grommet or a T-tube is inserted into the affected ear or ears under general anaesthetic. These let air pass through the eardrum, keeping the pressure equal on either side. It's a minor procedure and your child should be fully recovered within a few days, although he might have mild earache and the ears may ooze or bleed a little bit at first. This is normal. Your doctor might prescribe ear drops – make sure you finish the whole course if so. Otherwise you can help make your child more comfortable with paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Grommets and T-tubes eventually drop out of the ears between 9 and 15 months later, by which time the problem is usually resolved. However, in 30% of cases another grommet is needed. Most children who've had speech delay catch up with their peers very quickly once their hearing is restored.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net

Glue ear