A new trial conducted by UK researchers has found that children experiencing complications due to a middle ear infection can reduce instances of hearing loss and avoid ineffective antibiotics by using a nasal balloon. The findings, which offer a promising alternative treatment to this common issue, have been published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

In recent years, doctors are finding that more and more young children are developing otitis media with effusion, better known as “glue ear.” This illness usually caused by infection is marked by a thick fluid filling the middle ear, which can impair hearing development. Because symptoms rarely present themselves, parents often do not seek treatment until noticing their child is having difficulty hearing. The study sites that in 2004, 2.2 million cases of otitis media with effusion were diagnosed, costing an estimated $4 billion in health care.

Mayo Clinic also notes that the presence of a persistent infection often leads to more substantial hearing loss in these children, and if permanent damage occurs to parts of the ear like the ear drum, the child can experience permanent hearing loss. The illness is often also marked by difficulty speaking, and delayed speech development because of this inability to hear.

“Unfortunately, all available medical treatments for otitis media with effusion such as antibiotics, antihistamines, decongestants, and intranasal steroids are ineffective and have unwanted effects, and therefore cannot be recommended,” said Dr. Ian Williamson, of the University of Southampton, UK in a recent press release.

Through conducting an open, randomized trial, researchers examined how utilizing a nasal balloon to treat otitis media with effusion could possibly be implemented on a larger scale in primary care environments. The device would be activated by the child blowing through each nostril into a specified nozzle which would then inflate the balloon. So far, success has only been seen in smaller trials within hospitals.

For this more recent trial, researchers recruited 320 children between the ages of 4 and 11 from different family practices within the UK who had been recently diagnosed with otitis media and effusion in one, or both ears. The children were then divided into two groups, one being a control group that received standard care, and the other receiving standard care with autoinflation of the nasal balloon three times a day for one to three months. Overall, researchers found that with the introduction of the nasal balloon, these children were more likely to have normal middle-ear pressure within one month than those who did not receive treatment, a 47.3 percent increase as opposed to 35.6 percent. And after three months, this likelihood increased to 49.6 percent as opposed to 38.3 percent in those who did not experience autoinflation.

“Autoinflation is a simple, low-cost procedure that can be taught to young children in a primary care setting with a reasonable expectation of compliance,” said the authors of the study. “We have found use of autoinflation in young, school-aged children with otitis media with effusion to be feasible, safe, and effective in clearing effusions, and in improving important ear symptoms, concerns, and related quality of life over a three-month watch-and-wait period.”

Researchers also add that they recommend a wider use of this treatment for children 4 and over to help combat associated hearing loss before it becomes a long-term problem.

Other doctors are also getting on board with this new treatment. Dr. Chris Del Mar and Dr. Tammy Hoffman of the Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice of Bond University, Australia, showed their support, writing, “At last, there is something effective to offer children with glue ear other than surgery.” They add that this form of surgery, which typically involves inserting drainage tubes into the ears, only helps a small number of children.

Researchers hope nasal balloons will be more commonplace, but before instituting this treatment on a larger scale, researchers are aware they must first test the method’s effectiveness more in-depth, and then teach both the patients and their families how to use it.

Source: Williamson I, Vennik J, Harnden A, et al. Effect of nasal balloon autoinflation in children with otitis media with effusion in primary care: an open randomized controlled trial. CMAJ. 2015.