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Condition - Glue Ear

Secretory otitis media

By Nutri People

Glue ear (also known as secretory otitis media) is a condition very common in babies and young children, but can also develop at any age. It is estimated that 90% of all children in England will have at least one episode of glue ear by the time they are 10 years of age. Glue ear occurs when fluid that looks like glue builds up in the middle ear. It can affect one or both ears. 

The outside of your ear canal – the bit you can stick your finger in and wiggle up and down – ends in your eardrum. The middle ear directly behind the eardrum is normally filled with air and has three little bones that carry sound vibrations from your eardrum to the inner part of your ear. A tube called the ‘Eustachian tube’ connects the middle ear to the back of the throat and is normally closed, but, from time to time, it opens to let air into the middle ear and to drain any fluid out of it. With glue ear, it appears that the Eustachian tube loses its ability to drain any fluid. The middle ear then becomes filled with a sticky, glue-like fluid, leading to glue ear. 

The fluid present in the middle ear dampens the movement of the three tiny bones in the middle ear, and so the volume of hearing is turned down and sound becomes muffled.

What causes glue ear?

The loss in the ability of the Eustachian tube to drain fluid may be due to a number of reasons, including:

  • Changes in air pressure inside the ear, which blocks the Eustachian tube.
  • Inflammation of the Eustachian tube due to infection, irritants (i.e. cigarette smoke) and allergies, which cause the tube to narrow.
  • Movement of gastric fluids from the stomach, up through the throat and into the Eustachian tube.
  • Genetics – some children may have a Eustachian tube that does not develop properly.

Glue ear is more common in younger children, because their Eustachian tube is shorter and more horizontal, making it easier for bacteria to enter; it’s also floppier with a smaller opening that is easier to block. Glue ear is also more common in those who:

  • Live in a smoky environment
  • Have been bottle-fed rather than breast-fed
  • Suffer with frequent coughs, colds or ear infections
  • Have had a brother or sister with glue ear

Symptoms of glue ear

Glue ear often does not have any obvious symptoms. However, some may experience hearing loss, and a sense of fullness, pressure or popping in the ear when swallowing. Because it can occur in very young children, they may have difficulty communicating any problems, but signs may include constant crying, pulling at the ears and a raised temperature. 

Conventional treatment

  • The most common treatment is to allow the ear time to heal itself.
  • If symptoms persist, surgery may be required. This commonly involves inserting a grommet, which is a tiny ventilation tube, into the eardrum to help drain away fluid and maintain air pressure in the middle ear.
  • Occasionally, ‘auto-inflation’ is advised, which involves the use of a balloon-like device, which is blown up regularly by the child using their nose. It may help to open the Eustachian tube and allow drainage of fluid.

Nutritional considerations

There is some evidence that supporting the immune system could be beneficial to those with glue ear. One possible explanation for this is that the immune system helps in conquering the inflammation associated with glue ear.  

In addition to a good multivitamin/mineral combination, the following supporting nutrients may be of benefit:

  • Fish oil– the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA may help to support the natural production of anti-inflammatory substances in the body. Fish oil is a good source of these omega 3 fatty acids. Fish oil that has been emulsified is particularly recommended. The process of emulsification changes a fish oil to a palatable, smooth, creamy consistency and may improve its absorption into the body. Taste is also a key factor when selecting a fish oil for children. Many fish oils contain artificial sweeteners, colourings and flavourings, which should be avoided. Choose a fish oil sweetened with natural xylitol, which is also good for the teeth.
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – studies suggest that this fatty acid may help support anti-inflammatory processes in the body.
  • Vitamin C is an antioxidant and immune-supporting vitamin, normally present at high levels in our immune cells.
  • Probiotics– according to studies from Harvard Medical School, bacteria present in our gut are emerging as influential players in the healthy function of our immune system.

Dietary advice

  • The overall diet should be high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in saturated fat.
  • Increase intake of fruits and vegetables. Quercetin, a plant-based chemical known as a flavonoid, provides the body with antioxidant protection and may help support anti-inflammatory processes. Red grapes, onions, apples, berries (including blueberries, blackberries, bilberries and blackcurrants) and green tea are good sources of quercetin.
  • Add small amounts of fresh ginger to your food and drinks. Ginger may help to support normal mucus production and anti-inflammatory processes.
  • Reduce your intake of mucus-producing foods, including dairy products, citrus, refined carbohydrates and refined sugar.
  • Replace vegetable oils and margarines with extra virgin olive oil, cold pressed flax and hemp seed oils and fish oil (via consumption of oily fish: mackerel, sardines, salmon and fresh tuna).
  • Nuts and seeds have anti-inflammatory properties. Walnuts in particular are a good source of omega 3 fats.
  • Drink plenty of bottled or filtered water every day.
  • Reduce stimulants, including cola drinks, tea and coffee.
  • Reduce your intake of animal fats. Favour free-range meat and lean cuts.
  • When preparing foods, grill, bake or stir-fry with olive oil.
  • Investigate the possibility of any food intolerances or food allergies.
  • Avoid cows milk. Casein, a protein present in cow’s milk, may increase mucus production in the middle ear and Eustachian tubes, as well as worsening allergies.
  • Older children and adults should eliminate all dairy products for a period of time.

Lifestyle advice

  • Avoid irritants, such as cigarette smoke.
  • Encourage breast-feeding of infants (breast-feeding for a few weeks can make a child less susceptible to ear infections).
  • Wash hands and toys frequently.
  • Increase exposure to fresh air and consider the use of air filters to decrease exposure to airborne germs.

Other therapies

Craniosacral therapy by an osteopathic physician could be helpful. This involves a gentle manipulation of the bones in the head, which has shown to be safe and effective for ear infections. Acupuncture may also provide some benefit. 

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