What Is Glue Ear?
Glue ear is known medically as otitis media with effusion but if you want it in plain English, it’s an infection of the middle ear with a sticky fluid produced. It mainly occurs in children but adults can also be affected. When the outlet from the middle ear (the Eustachian tube) is blocked, a clear fluid forms that fills the Eustachian tube. Over time, this fluid thickens and blocks the tube and this is what is known as the “glue”. Some people with glue ear snore.
The ear has three parts, the outer ear which includes what is known as the Pinna, the part we think of as the ear, right down to the ear drum, then there is the middle ear, which starts behind the ear drum and finally, the inner ear. The middle ear has a tube (the Eustachian tube) going down to the throat at the back of the mouth.
What’s The Eustachian Tube?
The Eustachian tube is a pressure equalizer. Without it, the middle ear has no outlet to the world but it needs one, in order to keep the air pressure inside the middle ear the same as in the air around us, so it can work properly. When we swallow, the Eustachian tube allows air in or out of the middle ear, so it has the same pressure as our surroundings. This is why airlines used to provide hard boiled sweets or candy to suck, for take -off and landing, to help equalize pressure in the middle ear, compared with air pressure in the plane’s cabin.
What’s The Problem With Glue Ear?
Inside the middle ear are three small bones that carry vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear, to help us understand what we are hearing. With glue ear, the ear drum gets pulled into the middle ear a bit and these bones can’t move and vibrate as they should, so the person becomes hard of hearing. In children, especially, this can affect their learning, as they cannot hear what is said. It can also affect their speech, as they cannot repeat back words correctly, for example, one child with glue ear said “wim poo” for swimming pool and “dadaj” for garage.
How Is Glue Ear Treated
Glue ear does NOT damage the ear. Medical treatments such as antibiotics and antihistamines don’t work well and a lot of the treatment is of the “wait and see if it improves” type. This is reasonable as many cases clear up of their own accord within 3 months or so, but not all. For some children, surgery with grommets (vents) being inserted into the ear drum helps but many parents are wary of surgery, especially in young children. The grommets tend to fall out after a time and the glue ear condition can return.
Non Surgical Treatments For Glue Ear
Not new but receiving a new boost from doctors, is the nasal balloon. This can be used by both children and adults. It is not a medical treatment, so no drugs, nor is it surgical, so no cutting, no hospital stay and no anaesthetic. It’s purely a physical procedure, called autoinflation, which even a child can learn to do safely and with no side effects. The treatment consists of blowing up a balloon through one nostril, or each nostril in turn if glue ear is present in both ears. Once the patient learns how to do this, it should be done 3 times a day for best results. The video below, while not great quality, shows a child being taught to use the nasal balloon. Results can be immediate with an instant return of hearing, though other times, it takes perseverance.
According to research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, autoinflation, or use of the nasal balloon is more likely to produce normal hearing results than other interventions. Most people will visit their doctor first for consultation and confirmation of whether they have glue ear and if so, whether a nasal balloon might help alleviate this. Nose balloons are available on line.