Glue Ear

Author thumbnail Amanda Deveney  |  Published 17 April 2024  | Updated 16 May 2024  | 7 mins read

A woman being in pain and holding her ear.

What is Glue Ear?

Glue Ear is a condition to do with the middle ear. Also known as otitis media with effusion (OME), glue ear occurs when the middle ear, behind the eardrum, becomes filled with fluid. It’s a condition that is most common in children and babies but can also happen in adults too and can affect only one ear or both at the same time.


Although most common in children, OME can also affect adults. Symptoms between children and adults can vary, so it’s important to recognise the signs in both for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.

Man with earache, ear pain at home.

Glue ear in adults

  • Hearing loss – adults with glue ear may experience some hearing loss which can impact communication and general daily life.
  • Earache – there may also be earache present or a full feeling or pressure in the ear which can make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Tinnitus – some people with glue ear may experience tinnitus – a ringing or buzzing in the ear which has no external source.
A child being in pain and holding her ear.

Glue ear in children

The most common symptoms of glue ear in children also include hearing loss, earache, and tinnitus. However the following symptoms are also signs they may have glue ear.

  • Changes in behaviour – such as acting out and poor concentration
  • Tiredness – possibly from disturbed sleep due to ear pain or tinnitus.
  • Not responding to their name – likely due to having trouble hearing.
  • Isolating themselves – such as wanting to play alone or not engaging with peers.
  • Delays in speech and language development – this is due to not being able to hear properly and mimic sounds.
  • Asking you to repeat what you’ve said.
  • Wanting the TV turned up louder and speaking louder themselves.
A doctor carefully examining a baby's ear.

Glue ear in babies

A baby or infant with glue ear will be more irritable and grizzly. They might be sleeping poorly, scratch at their ears, or their pedeatrician might note some hearing loss.


Explain that many factors can lead to glue ear, including colds and flu, allergies, and passive smoking. It is commonly, but not always, associated with ear infections.

Glue ear occurs when the middle ear (the area behind the eardrum) becomes filled with sticky fluid. This area is usually clear and has a small pocket of air which allows sound to travel through into the rest of your ear, allowing you to hear clearly. It is very common in children – 8 in 10 children will get glue ear before the age of 10. However, it can also occur in adults.

The causes of glue ear are wide and varied. It is commonly associated with ear infections but that’s not the only cause. Glue ear is not caused by a build-up of earwax, or by getting water in the ear after swimming or showering.

The common causes of glue ear include:

  • Eustachian tube dysfunction – The Eustachian tube is a narrow tube that runs from your middle ear to the back of your throat. It helps to drain mucus and debris away from the inner ear and helps to maintain a normal pressure in your ear (which is why chewing or sucking sweets on a plane can help reduce ear pain.) If your eustachian tube stops working as it should, it can cause a build-up of fluid and debris, causing glue ear.
  • Infections – previous ear infections can reduce the efficiency of the eustachian tube which can lead to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear, causing glue ear. Additionally, residual fluid in the middle ear left over from infections can also cause a bout of glue ear.
  • Allergies – allergies can lead to an increase of mucus production and are another potential cause of glue ear.
    Anatomical factors – if you have a narrower than normal eustachian tube or nasal polyps, these can make you more prone to repeated glue ear complications.
  • Environmental factors – if you grew up in a home where the adults smoked, this can cause irritation that can lead to glue ear.
  • Cleft palate – those born with a cleft palate are more susceptible to glue ear as they have a narrower than normal eustachian tube which can prevent thorough drainage of music and debris away from the middle ear.
  • Family history – If members of your family are susceptible to bouts of glue ear, you may also be more prone.
  • Health conditions – Some serious health conditions such as vasculitis or nasopharyngeal cancer can also lead to glue ear, typically in adults.
A patient having a tympanometry test.


Without a professional diagnosis, glue ear can be challenging to detect.

An audiologist will examine your or your child’s ears and a further assessment will be carried out. They will perform a tympanometry test – a test that measures how well the eardrum can move. If there is fluid in the middle ear the eardrum won’t move properly.

A graph (called a tympanogram) will show the results. Your audiologist will likely recommend a hearing test to check if the glue ear is affecting your or your child’s hearing and by how much. These tests are quick and are completely painless.

Here at THCP, we recommend yearly, regular ear tests to ensure the health of your family’s ears.


In most cases, glue ear doesn’t require medical treatment and will resolve on its own within around 3 months. However, it’s best to keep a regular eye on the situation as sometimes, treatment is required. Specifically if symptoms last longer than 3 months.

Unlike other conditions, glue ear can not be treated with antibiotics, decongestants, steroids, or changes in diet.

There are a few different treatment options your audiologist might offer you depending on the severity of the glue ear.

  • Grommets – The most common treatment is via a simple surgery which involves inserting small tubes called grommets into the ear to help drain the excess fluid.
  • Adenoidectomy – A surgery to remove the adenoids at the back of the throat with the aim to improve eustachian tube function and overall reduce the recurrence of glue ear after grommets fall out.
  • Hearing Aids – Often a temporary treamt while you wait for the condition to improve on its own.
  • Otovent balloon – A non surgical treatment that is being used more often and is designed to allow pressure equalisation in the middle ear and eustachian tube, allowing better drainage.
A woman putting on ear protection.

How to prevent glue ear?

While there are some ways you can help to prevent glue ear, most cases are, unfortunately, unavoidable and therefore not completely preventable.

  • However, some preventative measures include:
  • Maintaining good hygiene to protect against infections, viruses, and inflammation that can lead to glue ear.
  • Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke to avoid inflammation.
  • Limit exposure to loud noises and wear proper ear protection in loud environments.
  • Seek medical attention if experiencing symptoms of an ear infection.


Glue ear is a very common condition in most young children but can also affect adults, causing hearing problems, pain, and tinnitus among other impacts on your daily life.

Treatment can range from surgery to using an Otovent balloon but the condition is most likely to resolve itself with most children growing out of it. Although most cases of glue ear are unavoidable, you can help safeguard your child against developing it by avoiding their exposure to secondhand smoke and seeking medical treatment if they have symptoms of ear infections.


Most cases of glue ear will clear up on their own. But there are treatment options available for cases that are more severe including surgery options and temporary hearing aids.

Glue ear can affect your day-to-day life as it can cause hearing loss and pain.It can also cause behavioural or sleep issues in children and, if severe, can impact their speech development. So it’s best to get your and your child’s ears checked regularly.

In adults, glue ear can feel like there is pressure or fullness in your ear that can’t be relieved. You may also experience earache or tinnitus (a running or buzzing sound with no external source). You may also experience mild to moderate hearing loss.

Symptoms of glue ear can include mild to moderate hearing loss, pain or earache, a feeling of fullness, or tinnitus. In children it can look like a lowered attention span, pawing or scratching at their ears, restlessness or sleeplessness, and speaking louder than normal.

You can help to relieve some of the pressure and potentially help with glue ear by performing a eustachian tube massage (ETM). You can easily perform an ETM yourself or also do it on your child if they need help.

  1. After washing your hands, use your index or middle finger to feel behind the ear lobe for a bony bump. With firm, steady pressure slide your finger down until it slips into a groove between the ear lobe and the jaw.
  2. Follow that groove down the neck with your finger, sliding down (with same steady pressure) until you reach the collar bone.
  3. For a child or small adult, it may help to tilt your head to the shoulder opposite the ear that you are massaging. (Ex: If massaging the right side, tilt their head to the left).