Navigation

Glue ear

Expert reviewer, Mr Anil Banerjee, Ear, Nose and Throat Consultant
Next review due November 2024

Glue ear is a build-up of fluid in your middle ear that can cause problems with hearing. It’s common in children, but adults can get it too. It usually goes away on its own without treatment. But sometimes you may need an operation to put tubes called grommets in your ear.

About glue ear

Glue ear is very common in children. It’s most common between the ages of six months and four years. Most children will have had an episode of glue ear by the time they start school. Adults can also get glue ear, though it’s much less common than in children.

In glue ear, fluid collects inside your middle ear. Your middle ear is normally kept ventilated (filled with air) by a tube running between your middle ear and the back of your throat. This is called the eustachian tube. Glue ear can happen if this tube becomes blocked or inflamed, and fluid can’t be cleared from inside your middle ear. The fluid inside your ear can affect your hearing.

Glue ear usually gets better over a few months. Most children who get it will no longer have it after a year. For a few children though, it carries on longer and can cause hearing loss. This can affect their education, language development and behaviour.

Causes of glue ear

Doctors aren’t completely sure why glue ear happens. But more than a half of the time, glue ear follows a middle ear infection – especially in young children. It’s more common during the winter months.

Other possible causes include:

  • problems with the Eustachian tube – the tube between the middle ear and the back of the throat
  • an infection (a virus or bacteria)
  • inflamed middle ear
  • infected or enlarged adenoids

Your child is more likely to get glue ear if they:

  • live with someone who smokes
  • have repeated colds and throat infections
  • have allergies
  • are bottle fed with unventilated bottles
  • have contact with lots of other children, such as at a nursery
  • have a cleft palate or Down’s syndrome

Symptoms of glue ear

The most common symptom of glue ear is hearing loss. This can be easily missed in very young children and babies. If your child has hearing loss caused by glue ear, you might notice some of the following signs.

  • Mishearing what you say.
  • Asking for things to be repeated.
  • Not responding when you call or talk to them, especially from behind.
  • Not being able to hear or communicate well in a group.
  • Having the television volume up high.
  • Having trouble concentrating.
  • A change in behaviour.

Other symptoms that can affect both adults and children include a feeling of fullness inside your ear, mild earache and hearing ‘popping’ in your ear. You or your child may have problems with balance too.

If a child’s hearing loss is severe, or they’ve had it for a while, they may have problems with speech and language. Their listening skills can also be affected and these things together can affect their progress at nursery or school.

Contact a GP if you notice these symptoms yourself, or in your child. You wouldn’t usually have discharge from your ear with glue ear. Contact a doctor straightaway if you have this symptom.

Diagnosis of glue ear

If you see a GP, they’ll ask about you, or your child’s symptoms and medical history. They will look at your eardrum (or your child’s) using a device called an otoscope.

The GP may arrange a hearing test. There are two main types of hearing test. Tympanometry assesses how well their eardrum reacts to sound and audiometry tests their hearing.

If your child has glue ear, the GP may suggest just monitoring them for three months, as it often clears up on its own. If after three months your child’s symptoms haven’t got any better, the GP may refer them to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. If your child has Down’s syndrome or a cleft palate, they’re likely to be referred to a specialist straightaway.

If you have glue ear as an adult, your GP may refer you to an ENT specialist, depending on your symptoms and history. They may want to run some tests to check whether there’s an underlying reason for your glue ear.

Self-help

If your child has hearing loss due to glue ear, there are lots of things you can do to help them. Try to:

  • get your child’s attention before you talk to them
  • speak to your child clearly, slowly and face-to-face
  • cut down background noise such as music or TV
  • read with your child every day to help develop language skills
  • work with your child’s nursery or school to make sure they get the right support

Treatment of glue ear

In children, glue ear usually gets better on its own with no treatment. The GP will usually monitor your child for three months to see whether the glue ear goes by itself, before considering treatment.

Glue ear in adults also usually clears up on its own. Your GP may refer you to a specialist for further investigation and treatment if it doesn’t.

There’s no evidence that medicines, such as antibiotics, antihistamines, mucolytics, steroids and decongestants are helpful. There is also no evidence that complementary therapies, such as homeopathy, acupuncture, cranial osteopathy and special diets will help.

Non-surgical treatments 

Hearing aids

If your child has hearing loss in both ears, they may be offered hearing aids while they’re waiting for surgery, or as an alternative to surgery. This might be an option if your child is unable to have surgery for some reason, or if you’d prefer them not to. Your child can wear them until the glue ear clears up on its own, or until they have surgery.

Autoinflation

Your doctor may suggest a technique called autoinflation that may help your child with their symptoms. They may be able to do this while they’re waiting to see if their glue ear clears up, or while they’re waiting for surgery.

In autoinflation, your child blows up a balloon using a nose-piece attached to one nostril. They close their mouth and the other nostril. This can help to open their eustachian tube and let air into the middle ear so that fluid can drain out.

Older children may be able to do this without using the balloon, by pinching their nostrils and closing their mouth while they forcibly blow out. Check with your doctor whether they think this would be helpful for your child. You should never do it if your child has a cold or other virus.

Surgery

Grommets

Surgery for glue ear involves placing tiny plastic tubes called grommets into your ear drum. These help drain out fluid from your middle ear. Your doctor may offer your child surgery if their glue ear is no better after three months and they have severe hearing loss in both ears. Surgery may also be an option if your child’s learning or development is significantly affected.

You can have grommets as an adult too, depending on what’s caused your glue ear.

Grommets are usually put in with a general anaesthetic, which means you, or your child will be asleep during the procedure. Your surgeon makes a tiny cut in your ear drum and drains away the fluid in your middle ear, before putting in the grommets. Grommets can improve hearing while they’re in, but eventually they fall out as your eardrum heals. You or your child may need more grommets put in if the glue ear comes back.

Adenoid removal

Sometimes surgeons recommend that children have their adenoids out (an adenoidectomy) at the same time as having grommets put in. The adenoids are lumps of soft tissue at the back of your child’s nose. Sometimes the adenoids getting infected is what causes glue ear. Your surgeon will usually only suggest taking them out if your child also has lots of coughs, colds and sore throats. It can improve how well the grommets work.

Living with grommets

You’ll usually need to keep your (or your child’s) ears dry for a few weeks after the operation. This helps to stop water getting into the ear and causing an infection while it’s healing. After the first few weeks, you’ll usually be able to swim or bathe as normal. There’s no evidence that wearing earplugs or a swimming cap will make any difference to your likelihood of getting an infection. It may be best to avoid diving though.

It’s fine to fly if you have grommets.

If you have any discharge from your ear while you have grommets, see a doctor. You may have an infection which will need treatment.

Frequently asked questions

  • Adults can get glue ear, although it’s far less common in adults than it is in children. If you have glue ear as an adult, you may see a specialist to check whether there’s an underlying reason for it. You can have grommets for glue ear as an adult, just as you would for a child.

  • Often you won’t need any treatment for glue ear. It usually gets better on its own within a few months. If glue ear doesn’t go away after a few months, your doctor may suggest surgery with grommets. These help to drain the fluid from inside your ear.

    See Treatment of glue ear for more information.

  • If your glue ear doesn’t clear by itself within a few months, your doctor may give you the option to have grommets. You can continue waiting for it to settle by itself if you don’t want to have grommets. But it may cause problems such as poor hearing and difficulties with speech and language.



Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.


About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Related information

  •  

    Discover other helpful health information websites.

    • Otitis media with effusion. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk/topics/otitis-media-with-effusion, last revised June 2021
    • Glue ear (OME). ENT UK. www.entuk.org, accessed 23 September 2021
    • Ear, nose and throat. Oxford handbook of general practice. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published June 2020
    • Otitis media (secretory). MSD manual. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision June 2020
    • Acute otitis media. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 9 September 2021
    • Glue ear. National Deaf Children's Society. www.ndcs.org.uk, accessed 23 September 2021
    • Communicating with a deaf child. National Deaf Children's Society. www.ndcs.org.uk, accessed 27 September 2021
    • Grommets. ENT UK. www.entuk.org, accessed 23 September 2021
    • Otitis media with effusion in under 12s: surgery. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. www.nice.org.uk, published February 2008
    • Tympanostomy tube. StatPearls. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, last updated 7 April 2021
  • Reviewed by Pippa Coulter, Freelance Health Editor, November 2021
    Expert reviewer Mr Anil Banerjee, Ear, Nose and Throat Consultant
    Next review due November 2024

ajax-loader