By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Glue ear sounds catastrophic but it is actually a common childhood condition caused when the middle ear fills with fluid.
If your child is having hearing problems, glue ear could be the culprit. Adults can suffer from glue ear, whose medical name is otitis media with effusion (OME), too.
At any given time, one in five children around the age of two have glue ear, and about 8 in 10 kids will suffer at some time before they are 10, according to the National Health Service in the UK.
It’s much more common in younger children, says The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and affects more boys than girls. But is glue ear dangerous? What exactly is glue ear and what can you do about it if your child suffers from the condition?
What Are The Symptoms of Glue Ear?
If your child is struggling to hear what you are saying, it could be a sign of glue ear.
Hearing loss is the most common symptom. A child with hearing loss from glue ear will speak more quietly, be unable to understand conversations that take place with a lot of background noise, and tune out of conversations they cannot hear.
Other symptoms of glue ear that are not so common include mild ear pain, sleeping problems, irritability, balance problems, tinnitus, and delayed speech and language development if the child is younger and the conditions persists for a long time.
What Are The Causes of Glue Ear?
Glue ear occurs when the middle ear behind the eardrum fills up with fluids. This means the bones carrying sound vibrations to the inner ear from the eardrum cannot move freely, and therefore sound vibrations do not travel effectively.
Experts are not sure exactly what causes fluid to build up. But is seems to be related to an issue with the tube connecting the middle ear to the throat – the Eustachian tube - problems may come about after a previous ear infection, or an irritation caused by smoke or allergies. A child is certainly more likely to get glue ear when they grow up in a household where one or more adults smokes.
Effective Glue Ear Treatments
In many cases, glue ear will clear itself up and there is no need for treatment – usually within three months. But sometimes glue ear lasts longer than three months, and it begins to affect language and speech development in young children. In this case, treatment is usually with minor surgery to place small tubes in the ear to help the fluid drain.
In addition, there are things you can do to prevent glue ear in your children, and to prevent and cure ear infections that can contribute to glue ear development.
We looked at recent scientific literature to see what works for glue ear:
1. Breastfeeding Reduces the Risk of Glue Ear
Experts say that breastfeeding likely helps prevent glue ear, but they are not sure why.
Perhaps the proteins in breast milk reduce inflammation in the Eustachian tube. A 1993 study by Steele Memorial Children's Research Center, Tucson shows that exclusive breast-feeding of 4 or more months protects infants from single and recurrent episodes of otitis media (glue ear).
Many other studies show that exclusive breastfeeding results in significantly fewer ear infections and cases of glue ear than formula feeding, which suggests that breastfeeding is a good preventative measure.
2. Quit Smoking to Prevent Glue Ear in Children
One thing you shouldn’t do when it comes to ear infections in children is smoke.
Children growing up with a smoker around are more likely to suffer from glue ear.
In a 1992 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of 132 daycare children, the 45 kids that were exposed to home cigarette smoke had a 38 percent higher risk of middle ear infections and conditions like glue ear than the 87 children who had non-smoking parents.
If you do anything to protect the ear health of your children, stop smoking.
3. Do Nothing to Cure Glue Ear?
Most middle ear infections, which can result in glue ear, resolve on their own.
European doctors are more likely to wait at least 24 to 72 hours before prescribing antibiotics. Doctors in the US, on the other hand, are more likely to treat ear infections with antibiotics earlier, even though this has not been proven to be beneficial.
In fact, a 2000 study from the University Medical Centre, Utrecht, Netherlands showed that antibiotic treatment had so few benefits in a study of 240 children aged six months to two years that immediate treatment was not recommended.
4. Try Xylitol to Get Rid of Glue Ear Infections
Xylitol is a sweetener – a natural sugar derived from plums, raspberries and strawberries. You will find xylitol in chewing gums and other products. As well as tasting good, experts believe xylitol inhibits the growth of bacteria that may cause ear infections which can lead to glue ear.
Here is some of the evidence that xylitol helps glue ears. A 1998 study from the University of Oulu, in Finland gave 857 children either a xylitol dose or a placebo in the form of chewing gum, lozenges, or syrup. The gum reduced the risk of developing an ear infection by 40 percent over two months, while the syrup reduced the risk somewhat and the lozenges – hard to eat – were not successful.
The one drawback was that the children had to take the dose five times a day, which is inconvenient. Notably, fewer doses may not work. For example, three doses a day did not work, in a subsequent study on xylitol.
5. Herbal Ear Drops Reduce the Pain of Glue Ear
Studies show that mullein and garlic help to ease the pain of glue ear and ear infections when combined with other natural herbs in oily ear drops.
A 2014 study from the Pediatric and Adolescent Ambulatory Community Clinic of General Health Services in Israel tested an herbal preparation against standard anesthetic ear drops and found that the two treatments were equally as effective.
However, it is not clear exactly how essential oils can get to the other side of the eardrum in order to help – perhaps they can penetrate the eardrum but this is not proven.
6. Allergies May Contribute to Glue Ear
Issues with the Eustachian tube, resulting in glue ear, may be caused by inflammation caused by allergies.
Research such as a 1996 study from Uppsala University, Sweden shows that children allergic to pollen, dust, or molds are more likely to develop glue ear because the condition is caused by allergic inflammation in the middle ear.
In addition to minimizing exposure to pollen, dust and molds, a diet that eliminates food allergens may be helpful for reducing the incidence of glue ear in children.
7. Use a Nasal Balloon to Treat Glue Ear
A new treatment could offer a non-surgical solution to glue ear.
According to the results of a 2015 study from the University of Southampton in the UK, blowing into a balloon through the nose can actually help treat the condition. During the treatment, the child blows through each nostril to inflate a balloon.
As they do this, they send air into the middle ear which brings pressure back to normal and clears away the fluid.
The research trial looked at 320 children in the UK. Children receiving the balloon treatment were more likely to have normal middle ear pressure after one month and three months.