A mom holding their child as a doctor looks at their child's ear.

Glue Ear

One of the most common childhood conditions has a funny name: glue ear. Glue ear occurs when the middle part of the ear fills with fluid. This fluid is often sticky, hence the name. Glue ear is usually temporary. In rare cases, however, it can sometimes impact a child’s hearing, speech and development. This is why parents should know what signs to look for to prevent adverse effects.

What is Glue Ear?

Glue ear is an infection or inflammation of the middle ear. The medical names are adhesive otitis, seromucous otitis media, otitis media with effusion, or OME. Although the illness can be uncomfortable, most children don’t experience severe outcomes. However, in some instances, long-term cases can have lasting effects.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 75% of children will have at least one episode of otitis media or glue ear by 3 years old. Although glue ear is primarily found in children, adults are also susceptible.

What Are the Causes?

A healthy middle ear is full of air. To work correctly, the middle ear needs to be kept clear of fluids. Children are more susceptible because their ears are still developing. The tube that connects with their middle ear (eustachian tube) is not as wide as an adult’s, making children more prone to glue ear.

During times of infection, air fails to make it into the middle ear. The cells lining the middle ear then produce the sticky fluid that gives glue ear its name. It’s this thick fluid that causes congestion. It can affect one ear or both, making it difficult to hear sounds correctly.

The Importance of Early Detection

The age at which children are most at risk is the same age at which they accelerate the development of their communication skills. As a result, severe cases may cause hearing deficits and developmental delays in children.

Top 5 Signs of Glue Ear in Children

Spotting the signs and seeking medical care is essential for preventing adverse outcomes. The following are the most common signs.

1. Tugging or Pulling at the Ear(s)

Children who are too young to communicate may exhibit tugging or pulling at their ears in an attempt to relieve pain or fullness. It can cause the affected ear to feel tender or stuffy, making children uncomfortable.

2. Fussiness and Crying

Many cases show no signs of a fever, though some do. When a child feels feverish, they may get fussy or cry. Glue ear can also cause pain or a feeling of fullness in the affected ear, causing children to become restless and irritable.

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3. Clumsiness or Problems With Balance

The middle ear helps with coordination and balance. When there is infection, inflammation, or fluid in the middle ear, children may start to stumble and look clumsy. A coordinated child may become suddenly unbalanced if they have glue ear.

4. Trouble Sleeping

Sleep can be challenging for children because of the pain and congestion. Furthermore, they may rub their ear against their blanket or pillow to reduce their symptoms. If your child has trouble sleeping and is fiddling with their ears, you may want to see a healthcare professional.

5. Trouble Hearing or Responding to Quiet Sounds

Because it impacts the ability to hear, a child may have trouble hearing soft sounds or sounds from far away. In more severe cases, they may not hear sounds at all. The child might also complain about a buzzing or ringing in their ears. A child who stops responding to sounds or experiences trouble hearing requires further assessment to determine if glue ear is the cause.

Treatment Options

In most cases, the condition resolves on its own. However, cases that become long-term or keep returning may need antibiotics to heal appropriately. Cases that do not respond to antibiotics may require surgery called adenoidectomy. Adenoid glands are typically the cause of repeated fluid buildup within the ear. During an adenoidectomy, a surgeon removes the adenoid glands to prevent future chronic glue ear.

A healthcare provider may refer severe or chronic cases of glue ear to a specific doctor, like an ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist. Some children may also benefit from speech or hearing therapy if their developmental milestones are affected.

Getting Help for Your Child

It’s vital for parents to be on the lookout for signs in children. Because it usually affects young children who are still learning to communicate, the condition is difficult to spot. To determine if a child has this condition, a visit to the doctor might be necessary.