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HealthInfo Canterbury

Glue ear (otitis media with effusion)

Ear infection Glue ear (otitis media with effusion or secretory otitis media) happens when the middle ear (the space behind the ear drum) is filled with fluid. The fluid can be thick and sticky, like glue. That's why it's called glue ear. Glue ear can affect one or both ears. It often follows an ear infection or can happen on its own.

After an ear infection, the fluid in the middle ear may stay around for weeks. This can happen even if your child has had antibiotics. The fluid clears up in eight out of 10 children within 12 weeks. When there is still fluid for more than a couple of weeks, this is called glue ear.

For children to hear normally, their middle ear needs to be full of air. When there is fluid instead of air, it's harder for the ear drum to vibrate and carry the noise vibrations to the inner ear. This makes it harder for your child to hear. If both ears contain fluid, your child's hearing can be significantly reduced. Young children who have hearing loss for long periods can have problems with their speech and language development.

The risk factors for glue ear are the same as for ear infections.

Symptoms of glue ear

Children with glue ear are not usually unwell. Their only symptom may be hearing loss. Your child may fail a hearing test. Or, your doctor may discover glue ear when they are checking your child for another reason. It's always a good idea for you to make sure your family doctor checks your children's ears at every opportunity.

The amount of hearing loss in children with glue ear varies. For your child, it can be like trying to hear with ear plugs in – sounds are muffled.

Young children can't tell you about their hearing loss. If your child is not hearing well, they may:

Reduced hearing may cause behaviour problems such as a lack of concentration or attention. Children may feel irritable if they keep missing out on what others are saying. Problems with speech and language development could be a sign of glue ear.

Although the fluid does not usually cause pain, parents often say their child has disturbed sleep.

Self-help for glue ear

If your child has glue ear they may not be able to hear you. Remember to speak slowly and clearly to them. Try to make sure your child can see your face when you are speaking to them and try to reduce background noise. It can be helpful to get their attention before you speak.

Let your child's teachers know that they may also need to get your child's attention before speaking, and that your child may need to sit at the front of the class to hear well. Glue ear is common and teachers usually know it's important to make sure children hear well.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Diagnosing and treating glue ear

Adapted from KidsHealth NZ by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by clinical director, Otolaryngology, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed May 2020.

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Review key: HIEIG-48027