Otitis media with effusion (OME) is when there is thick or sticky fluid behind the eardrum in the middle ear, but there is no ear infection.
OME; Secretory otitis media; Serous otitis media; Silent otitis media; Silent ear infection; Glue ear
The Eustachian tube connects the inside of the ear to the back of the throat. This tube helps drain fluids to prevent them from building up in the ear. The fluids drain from the tube and are swallowed.
Otitis media with effusion (OME) and ear infections are connected in two ways:
The following can cause swelling of the lining of the Eustachian tube, leading to increased fluid:
The following can cause the Eustachian tube to close or become blocked:
Getting water in a baby's ears will not lead to a blocked tube.
OME is most common in winter or early spring, but it can occur at any time of year. It can affect people of any age, although it occurs most often in children under age 2. (It is rare in newborns.)
Younger children get OME more often than older children or adults for several reasons:
The fluid in OME is often thin and watery. It used to be thought that the longer the fluid was present, the thicker it became. ("Glue ear" is a common name given to OME with thick fluid.) However, it is now believed that the thickness of the fluid has more to do with the particular ear than with how long the fluid is present.
Unlike children with an ear infection, children with OME do not act sick.
OME often does not have obvious symptoms.
Older children and adults often complain of muffled hearing or a sense of fullness in the ear. Younger children may turn up the television volume because of hearing loss.
The health care provider may find OME while checking a child's ears after an ear infection has been treated.
OME may also be diagnosed when the health care provider examines the ear for another reason, such as at a well-child physical.
The health care provider will look for certain changes when examining the eardrum:
A test called tympanometry is a more accurate tool for diagnosing OME. The results of this test can help tell the amount and thickness of the fluid.
An acoustic otoscope or reflectometer is a more portable device that accurately detects the presence of fluid in the middle ear.
An audiometer or some other type of formal hearing test may help the health care provider decide what treatment is needed.
Unless there are also signs of an infection, most health care providers will not treat OME at first. Instead, they will recheck the problem in 2 - 3 months.
Some children who have had repeat ear infections may receive a smaller, daily dose of antibiotics to prevent new infections.
Certain changes may help clear up the fluid behind the eardrum:
Most often the fluid will clear on its own. You doctor may suggest waiting and watching to see if the condition worsens.
If the fluid is still present after 6 weeks, treatment might include:
If the fluid is still present at 8 - 12 weeks, antibiotics may be tried, although they are not always helpful.
At some point, the child's hearing should be tested.
If there is significant hearing loss (> 20 decibels), antibiotics or ear tubes might be appropriate.
If the fluid is still present after 4 - 6 months, tubes are probably needed, even if there is no significant hearing loss.
Sometimes the adenoids must be removed to restore proper functioning of the Eustachian tube.
Otitis media with effusion usually goes away on its own over a few weeks or months. Treatment may speed up this process. Glue ear may not clear as quickly as OME with a thinner effusion.
OME is usually not life threatening. Most children do not have long-term damage to their hearing or speaking ability, even when the fluid remains for many months.
Note: Permanent hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases the more ear infections a child has.
Call your health care provider if:
American Academy of Family Physicians; American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery; American Academy of Pediatrics Subcommittee on Otitis Media With Effusion. Otitis media with effusion. Pediatrics. 2004;113:1412-1429.
Paradise JL, Feldman HM, Campbell TF, Dollaghan CA, Rockette HE, Pitcairn DL, et al. Tympanostomy tubes and developmental outcomes at 9 to 11 years of age. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:248-261.