Can inflating a nasal balloon fix ear fluid build-up?

New research finds this technique works.

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Photo: Ian Williamson, University of Southampton

Something that might be best described as a cool trick is now proven to help clear fluid from kids’ ears, potentially reducing the need for antibiotics or tubal insertion. The even better news is that you can do it at home.

In a British study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, 49.6 per cent of children affected with ‘glue ear’ – also known as “otitis media with effusion”, or, more simply, a build-up of middle-ear fluid – were able to reduce the build-up with a special nasal balloon. It works like this: your kid blocks one nostril, sticks the nozzle in the other and inflates the balloon with his nose.

Ian Williamson, the lead researcher in the study, says blowing into the balloon provides the right amount of pressure to help equalize the ear: “It’s exciting that many children now have an option that could help clear the fluid, improve their symptoms and quality of life by using a relatively simple and safe method.” (The study included 320 kids aged four to 11, the age group most likely to have fluid build-up in their ears.)

‘Glue ear’ is very common in young kids, says Adrian James, an ear, throat and nose specialist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “Probably all children have it at some point, but usually the fluid drains away on its own without treatment.” If left untreated, fluid build-up in the ears can cause hearing and speech development issues in young kids, which can potentially lead to behavioural problems. The condition initially shows up as hearing loss. “Be aware if your child is turning up the TV loudly, or doesn’t respond when you talk to them,” says James. The pressure from the fluid can be uncomfortable and even painful.

Antibiotics don’t work in treating middle-ear fluid build-up, though they are often prescribed. Usually, doctors watch the condition for three months to see if it persists – if it does, tubes are often inserted to help drain the ear and restore pressure.

There are different theories why kids develop middle-ear fluid. The Eustachian tubes (narrow tubes that run from the middle ear to the back of the throat, behind the nasal passages) are less developed in children, and may be blocked by big adenoids in the back of the throat. Kids’ immune systems aren’t as developed, which leads to more viruses and infections which can block drainage in the ears. And a cautionary note: children of parents who smoke get more middle-ear fluid build-up. “Lots of research has shown that passive smoking damages the lining of the Eustachian tube – children of parents who smoke have more problems with middle-ear fluid,” says James.

Does this mean kids in Canada will now be treated with this balloon? James says the nasal inflation technique has actually been around for decades, but the new research might make it more popular. Until now, there hasn’t been enough evidence to support its effectiveness.

Safeena Kherani, an Ottawa-area ear, nose and throat specialist, is encouraged by the study. With her patients, she usually waits three months to see if the issue will resolve itself. “In this active period of watchful waiting, it is nice to have a simple, conservative treatment to try and help it along.”

A diagnosis from a doctor is always recommended before you try any therapy, says James. But the fact that parents can go online and order a simple piece of equipment to alleviate a problem that affects so many kids, and possibly prevent future medical intervention, is a win for everyone. “For a lot of families, this isn’t too expensive and it’s something to do while you’re waiting. I don’t see any reason not to do it,” says James.

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