How Does Glue Ear Affect my Child?
Glue ear is an extremely common condition in children under the age of five. As children get older they are less prone to glue ear, but it can still be present into adolescence. It can cause a temporary or fluctuating hearing loss but does not usually lead to permanent hearing loss. While a child has glue ear they may have difficulty hearing in busy classrooms, their speech may be slow to develop and they may appear naughty or frustrated.
Common signs of glue ear can be:
• Difficulty attracting a child’s attention
• Saying 'what' or 'pardon' frequently
• Speech developing more slowly than expected
• Becoming tired or frustrated easily
• Getting easily distracted or lacking concentration
• Getting into trouble at school or nursery
• Hearing seems worse when the child has a cold
What is Glue Ear?
Glue ear is caused by a build up of fluid in the middle ear, behind the ear-drum. The middle ear should be an air-filled space which allows the ear-drum to vibrate and which is connected to the back of the throat via the Eustachian tube. In adults, the Eustachian tube is nearly vertical and opens and closes when we yawn or swallow, allowing fresh air into the middle ear and equalising the pressure with the outside world. In children, the Eustachian tube is narrow and horizontal, allowing it to get blocked easily. This prevents fresh air getting into the middle ear and the surrounding tissue starts to produce a fluid. This fluid can be thin and watery but it can also become thick and glue-like.
Fluid in the middle ear prevents the ear-drum from vibrating properly and sound cannot travel easily into the inner ear. If the inner ear is not receiving sound so well then things sound quieter and the child develops a temporary hearing loss. However, the inner ear is not damaged and when glue ear drains away the child’s hearing returns to normal.
How long does Glue Ear last?
Glue ear usually clears by itself and may only last a few days or weeks. Some children develop glue ear for longer periods, especially if they are prone to ear infections, their breathing is affected by large adenoids, or they have a cleft palate or Down’s syndrome. If you are worried that your child may have glue ear, make an appointment to see your GP who will arrange an assessment if necessary.
How can Glue Ear be treated?
The treatment available for glue ear includes:
Watch and wait. Glue ear often clears by itself so a period of three months is recommended to see if the fluid drains without intervention.
Grommets. These are tiny plastic tubes which are inserted into the eardrum under a general anaesthetic by an ENT surgeon. They allow air back into the middle ear so that the fluid can drain away. They do not need any maintenance once they are fitted and they fall out naturally after nine to 12 months. Very occasionally another operation is required to remove the grommets if they do not fall out by themselves. Sometimes the fluid comes back after the grommets have fallen out and further sets of grommets may be required.
Hearing aids. Hearing aids overcome the effect of the fluid by making sounds louder. The fluid is still present but the child hears more normally. High quality digital aids can be fitted on one or both ears and will be provided free of charge. Support will be provided in school to ensure that children manage well with their hearing aids in education. Some children are unsuitable for grommets, e.g. those with Down’s Syndrome, in which case hearing aids are a better option.
How can I help my child if they have Glue Ear?
It is not possible to make glue ear go away by doing anything at home or school. To make it easier for a child with glue ear to hear better, it is important to:
• Attract their attention before you start talking
• Make sure they can see your face when you talk
• Reduce background noise – turn the radio or television down when you wish to talk
• Speak clearly without shouting
• Ensure teachers are aware that the child has a hearing problem. The child should sit at the front of class, near the teacher
Breast feeding has been shown to reduce the risk of babies and children getting glue ear in some research.
Children living in smoky environments have been shown to develop more ear infections and are more prone to glue ear, according to the Department of Health. It is important to smoke outside or in an area not used by children.
Further information is available at the National Deaf Children’s Society: www.ndcs.org.uk