Otitis media with effusion (OME) is a condition in which no ear infection is present, but fluid that is sticky or thick has built up in the middle ear, behind the ear drum. Otitis media with effusion can affect infants, children and adults.
When some type of blockage forms in the Eustachian tube, fluid drainage can be hampered. This can lead to bacteria multiplying in the blocked fluid.
Swelling and excess fluid can be caused by swelling from allergies, respiratory infections or exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke or pollution. A blockage can be caused by sudden changes in air pressure and drinking fluids while lying down. Getting water in the ears will not cause a blockage.
Signs and Symptoms
OME may not present any outward symptoms at all. This makes it especially difficult to recognize in children, because they may not act sick.
Hearing can be affected, with sounds being muffled or a feeling of fullness being present in the ear.
Otitis media with effusion may be discovered by a physician while performing a routine physical exam. If OME is suspected, a tympanometry test can help accurately diagnose it. Additionally, a reflectometer or acoustic otoscope can detect fluid in the middle ear.
A hearing test may be performed to help determine the best course of treatment.
When diagnosed, OME may not be treated at all, unless there is an infection present. However, a follow-up appointment may be in order two to three months following the initial diagnosis.
If the patient is susceptible ear infections, antibiotics may be prescribed. Avoiding the causes of the swelling, fluid buildup and blockage may also be recommended.
If the OME does not clear up on its own or the fluid is present for too long, some hearing loss may occur. Treatment for this can entail the use of antibiotics. Tubes may be need to be inserted in the ears if fluid remains present after multiple months.
In some severe cases, the adenoids may be removed in order to help restore normal function and prevent blockage and fluid build up.
Other concerns include the development of cysts or ear infection, permanent damage, scarring and in children, problems with speech.
It should be noted that while permanent hearing loss is rare in children, the risk increases in children who have repeated bouts of ear infection.
Otitis media with effusion can be treated, may clear up on its own and can be avoided to a large degree with certain precautionary measures. These measures include not drinking while lying down, infants being breastfed rather than bottle-fed and avoiding irritants such as cigarette smoke.
Medline Plus. “Otitis Media with Effusion” https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007010.htm
American Accreditation Healthcare Commission (A.D.A.M.) “Otitis Media with Effusion” https://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/otitis-media-with-effusion/overview.html