Glue ear is an ear condition associated with the buildup of sticky fluid within the middle ear. As the name implies, this fluid is very thick and gluelike. It impedes the patient's hearing, as the middle ear is supposed to contain air, not fluid, but generally does not cause pain. Most cases resolve independently after several days. In the small percentage of cases where the condition does not clear up naturally, there are a number of treatments available to address glue ear.
This condition occurs when the eustachian tube, designed to provide drainage from the ear, becomes clogged, as occurs in ear infections and head colds. Glue ear is more common in children because their eustachian tubes are smaller, and thus more likely to get stopped up. The clog prevents drainage and also tends to have a drying effect on the middle ear, causing it to start exuding fluid, and the patient develops glue ear.
In most patients, the eustachian tube naturally unclogs, allowing the ear to drain and restoring hearing. Hearing can be impaired for several days, and the patient may also develop unusually thick and gluey earwax. Thick earwax does not necessarily mean someone has glue ear, however, as sometimes earwax production is simply naturally high. If people have thick earwax with a recent history of ear infections, fever, or cold, it can be a sign of glue ear.
Also known as secretory otitis media or otitis media with effusion, glue ear can be treated with medications in cases where the condition does not appear to be resolving independently. The medications will treat the underlying cause of the clog in the eustachian tube, allowing it to drain. If the condition does not resolve or it becomes a recurrent problem, a doctor may recommend surgery. Glue ear surgery involves creating a small hole in the ear drum, closed with a grommet or tube, to allow the ear to drain. As the ear heals, the grommet is pushed out.
People of all ages can get this condition. It is generally a good idea to see a doctor if people experience several days of hearing loss, start to develop extreme pain in the ear, or begin to feel dizzy and out of balance. A physician can evaluate the patient to decide if additional treatment is needed. Doctors would much rather see patients who don't need treatment and send them home than see patients with advanced disease who waited because they were afraid of being a nuisance.