Overview - Glue ear

Glue ear is where the empty middle part of the ear canal fills up with fluid. This can cause temporary hearing loss. It usually clears up within 3 months, but see a GP about any hearing problems.

Check if it's glue ear

The most common symptom of glue ear is temporary hearing loss. It can affect both ears at the same time.

Other symptoms may include:

Glue ear is much more common in children, but adults with glue ear have the same symptoms.

Other conditions that cause ear pain
Symptoms Possible condition
Ear pain with a change in hearing earwax build-up, an object stuck in the ear (don't try to remove it yourself – see your GP), perforated eardrum (particularly after a loud noise or accident)
Ear pain with toothache children teething, dental abscess
Ear pain with pain when swallowing sore throat, tonsillitis
Ear pain with a fever ear infection, flu, cold

See a GP if you or your child are having hearing problems

Your child may be struggling to hear if they often:

  • speak more loudly or quietly than usual
  • are difficult to understand
  • ask people to repeat what they say
  • ask for the TV or music to be turned up loud
  • struggle to hear people far away
  • become easily distracted when people are talking
  • seem tired and irritable because it's harder to listen

What happens at your appointment

Your GP can usually diagnose glue ear by looking for fluid inside the ear.

They'll use a small scope with a magnifying glass and a light. This shouldn't be painful.

If your child has had glue ear for more than 3 months, they may be referred to a specialist for hearing tests.

Hearing tests can help find out how severe any hearing loss is and what's causing it.

Treatment from a GP

Glue ear isn't always treated. Your GP will usually wait and see if the symptoms get better on their own.

This is because there's no effective medicine for glue ear, and it often clears up on its own within 3 months.

They may still monitor your child for up to a year in case the symptoms change or get worse.

Your GP may suggest trying a treatment called autoinflation while waiting for symptoms to improve. Autoinflation can help fluid in the ear to drain.

It's done by either:

  • blowing up a special balloon using one nostril at a time
  • swallowing while holding the nostrils closed

As autoinflation has to be done several times a day, it's not usually recommended for children under 3 years old.

If glue ear causes an ear infection, your GP may prescribe antibiotics.

Hospital treatment for glue ear

Your child may be referred to a specialist in hospital if:

  • glue ear symptoms are affecting their learning and development
  • they already had severe hearing loss before glue ear
  • they have been diagnosed with Down's syndrome or a cleft lip and palate, as glue ear is less likely to get better by itself

The two main treatments are temporary hearing aids or grommets.

In rare cases, surgery may be recommended to remove some glands at the back of the nose (adenoids). This is known as an adenoidectomy.

The specialist in hospital will help you decide on the best treatment option.

Grommets for treating glue ear

Grommets are small temporary tubes that are placed in your child's ear during surgery. They help drain fluid away and keep the eardrum open.

The grommet should fall out naturally within 6 to 12 months as your child's ear gets better.

If your child needs grommets, you might find these links useful:

Page last reviewed: 10/08/2017
Next review due: 10/08/2020

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