The Eustachian tube connects the inside of the ear to the back of the throat. This tube helps drain fluid to prevent it from building up in the ear. The fluid drains from the tube and is swallowed.
Otitis media with effusion (OME) and ear infections are connected in two ways:
After most ear infections have been treated, fluid (an effusion) remains in the middle ear for a few days or weeks.
When the Eustachian tube is partially blocked, fluid builds up in the middle ear. Bacteria inside the ear become trapped and begin to grow. This may lead to an ear infection.
The following can cause swelling of the Eustachian tube lining that leads to increased fluid:
Irritants (especially cigarette smoke)
The following can cause the Eustachian tube to close or become blocked:
Drinking while lying on your back
Sudden increases in air pressure (such as descending in an airplane or on a mountain road)
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. It occurs most often in children under age 2, but is rare in newborns.
Younger children get OME more often than older children or adults for several reasons:
The tube is shorter, more horizontal, and straighter, making it easier for bacteria to enter.
The tube is floppier, with a tinier opening that's easy to block.
Young children get more colds because it takes time for the immune system to be able to recognize and ward off cold viruses.
The fluid in OME is often thin and watery. In the past, it was thought that the fluid got thicker the longer it was present in the ear. ("Glue ear" is a common name given to OME with thick fluid.) However, fluid thickness is now thought to be related to the ear itself, rather than to 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.
Exams and Tests
The doctor or nurse may find OME while checking your child's ears after an ear infection has been treated.
The doctor or nurse will examine the eardrum and look for certain changes, such as:
Air bubbles on the surface of the eardrum
Dullness of the eardrum when a light is used
Eardrum that does not seem to move when little puffs of air are blown at it
Fluid behind the eardrum
A test called tympanometry is an 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 portable device that accurately detects fluid in the middle ear.
An audiometer or other type of formal hearing test may help the health care provider decide on treatment.
Most health care providers will not treat OME at first, unless there are also signs of an infection. Instead, they will recheck the problem in 2 to 3 months.
Some children who have had repeat ear infections may receive a small, daily dose of antibiotics to prevent new infections.
You can make the following changes to help clear up the fluid behind the eardrum:
Avoid cigarette smoke
Encourage infants to breastfeed
Treat allergies by staying away from triggers (such as dust). Adults and older children may be given allergy medications.
Most often the fluid will clear on its own. You doctor may suggest watching the condition for a while to see if it is getting worse before recommending treatment.
If the fluid is still present after 6 weeks, the doctor may recommend:
Continuing to watch the problem
A hearing test
A single trial of antibiotics (if they were not given earlier)
If the fluid is still present at 8 to 12 weeks, antibiotics may be tried. These medicines are not always helpful.
At some point, the child's hearing should be tested.
If there is significant hearing loss (more than 20 decibels), antibiotics or ear tubes might be needed.
If the fluid is still present after 4 to 6 months, tubes are probably needed, even if there is no major hearing loss.
Sometimes the adenoids must be taken out for the Eustachian tube to work properly.
Otitis media with effusion most often goes away on its own over a few weeks or months. Treatment may speed up this process. Glue ear may not clear up as quickly as OME with a thinner fluid.
OME is most often 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.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
You think you or your child might have otitis media with effusion. (You should continue to watch the condition until the fluid has disappeared.)
New symptoms develop during or after treatment for this disorder.
Helping your child reduce the risk of ear infections can help prevent OME.
Kerschner JE. Otitis media. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 32.
Paradise JL, Feldman HM, Campbell TF, et al. Tympanostomy tubes and developmental outcomes at 9 to 11 years of age. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:248-261.
Rosenfeld RM, Schwartz SR, Pynnonen MA, et al. Clinical practice guideline: Tympanostomy tubes in children. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013;149(1 Suppl):S1-35.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.