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Cause of Hearing Loss - Glue Ear

Hearing Loss Caused by Sticky Fluid

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Updated February 07, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Glue ear is another term for when there is otitis media with thick effusion. This means that there is a fluid buildup behind the eardrum but no ear infection. The fluid buildup may be a result of a recent ear infection that has caused fluid to increase in the middle ear. In addition, the Eustachian tube that links the ear to the back of the throat could also be blocked, allowing fluid buildup. It is the Eustachian tube's job to drain fluid, but it can't do this if it is blocked.

An About.com Deafness site visitor offered an alternative definition for glue ear: "The middle ear space should be filled with air, not fluid."

If the Eustachian tube closes off so that air cannot travel into the middle ear chamber, the air in the middle ear gradually becomes absorbed and a slight vacuum may form, drawing fluid from the tissues. If the fluid stays there for a long time, it may thicken. If any bacterial matter is there, the ear may become infected.

Who Usually Gets Glue Ear?

Children and adults can get glue ear, but it is mostly young children who get it because their immune systems are not mature yet. They have less ability to fight off cold viruses that can lead to ear infections. Plus, a child's Eustachian's tube is short, floppy and has a smaller hole that is very easily blocked.

At the same time, symptoms of glue ear are not that obvious in young children. It may only be found when a doctor checks a child's ear after an ear infection or at a regular doctor's visit.

Resolution of Glue Ear

Usually the glue ear situation will clear up on its own without medical intervention. If it does not go away, the risk of hearing loss increases, although most children do not develop hearing loss or language and speech delays. If hearing loss does develop, it is usually conductive and temporary in nature.

There is a risk of permanent hearing loss if the otitis media keeps recurring. After a significant period of time without the fluid going away, a child may have to be treated with antibiotics or with ear tubes, also known as grommets. (Using grommets may or may not have an association with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.)

Another option is the temporary use of hearing aids. A British study was done of 48 children with glue ear and hearing loss who were given hearing aids instead of surgically-installed grommets. Almost all of the children found that their hearing improved with the hearing aid.

In late 2011, researchers in Europe announced that some cancer drugs could also treat ear inflammation in mice. The researchers noted that the inability of oxygen to reach the middle ear prevented inflammation from resolving itself. The hope is that their research could someday lead to the creation of a non-surgical solution for glue ear.

Sources:

Causes of Hearing Loss in Children. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/disorders/causes.htm

Flanagan PM, Knight LC, Thomas A, Browning S, Aymat A, Clayton MI. Hearing aids and glue ear. Clinical otolaryngology and allied sciences. 1996 Aug;21(4):297-300.

Otitis Media with Effusion. Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007010.htm

Potential new treatments for a common childhood hearing disorder. Medical Research Council. http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC008249

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