What Are the Symptoms of Fluid in the Ears?

Mom and daughter waiting at doctor's office for earache.
Mom and daughter waiting at doctor's office for earache. FangXiaNuo / Getty Images

Fluid in the ear (also called glue ear, serous otitis media, or serous otitis media with effusion), is caused by a blockage in the auditory (eustachian) tube, usually stemming from a cold, allergies, or an anatomical blockage, such as enlarged tonsils or turbinates. Fluid in the ear can be present with or without an ear infection. This condition is common, often goes undiagnosed and is much more common in small children than adults.

Symptoms Related to Fluid in the Ears

The symptoms of fluid in the ear vary widely between individuals and also have a wide range of severity. Some individuals may have all of the symptoms on this list while some may have none or only a few.

Common symptoms of fluid in the ear include:

  • Hearing loss (parents may notice that a child turns the television up quite loud, that they don't always come when they are called, or that they don't enjoy toys that make sounds).
  • Feeling of fullness in the ears, feeling like your ears need to "pop"but being unable to do so.
  • Vertigo (dizziness, loss of balance).
  • Ear aches or ear pain (rare without the presence of a middle ear infection).
  • Pain in the ears that may increase when changing altitude or diving (rare).
  • Poor school performance (may stem from hearing difficulties).
  • behavior problems
  • recurring middle ear infections
  • Fluid in the ear may be accompanied by signs and symptoms of allergies or an upper respiratory infection including congestion, runny nose, post nasal drip, or watery eyes.

    Especially in small children, there may be no noticeable symptoms at all. If fluid in the ear is undiagnosed in developing children, it can lead to problems such as speech delays and delays in gross motor development. Occasionally a child with fluid in the ears may have no other symptoms except missing milestones such as not walking or talking on time.


    A doctor may notice visual changes to the ear drum during examination with an otoscope such fluid or bubbles behind the ear drum, a retracted ear drum, or an abnormal coloration of the ear drum.

    Will I Need Ear Tubes?

    If fluid in the ear does not resolve on its own after a reasonable amount of time (usually about three months), and is associated with hearing loss or debilitating symptoms, the surgical placement of ventilation tubes may be necessary. During this procedure a small hole is made in the ear drum, (called a myringotomy), and a tiny synthetic tube is used to keep the auditory tube open and allow the fluid to drain properly. This also allows for proper ventilation of the inner ear.

    Your doctor may choose to place ventilation tubes rather than wait for the fluid to clear on it's own if your child is at risk for developmental delays. Untreated fluid in the ear can not only cause developmental delays in young children but can lead to a retracted ear drum which over a period of time can lead to permanent hearing loss. The surgical placement of ventilation tubes is currently the only treatment for fluid in the ears that is supported by research. Research has shown that other treatments such as the administration of medications (decongestants) are not effective.


    Medline Plus. Otitis Media With Effusion. Accessed: November 27, 2016 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007010.htm

    Medscape. Otitis Media With Effusion. Accessed: Febuary 28, 2016 from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/858990-clinical

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