What is glue ear?
Glue ear is a common childhood condition that occurs when the area behind the eardrum, known as the middle ear, fills with a sticky, glue-like fluid rather than air. This substance prevents the ear from working correctly, and affects the ability to hear. Glue ear is also known as otitis media with effusion (OME), or serious otitis media.
What causes it?
Doctors don't know exactly what triggers glue ear, but it's thought to be related to the eustachian tube, through which fluid normally drains away from the middle ear. When this stops functioning properly, fluid builds up in the middle ear, causing glue ear. Over time, this build-up of fluid prevents the eardrum from working like it should. Remember, this substance is behind the eardrum, so you won't be able to see it or clean it out, so leave those cotton buds well alone!
What are the main symptoms?
The main symptom of glue ear is moderate hearing loss in one or both ears. To your child, this will be a similar sensation to the one you experience when you put your fingers in your ears. Keep an eye out for signs that may suggest your little one is having problems hearing. This can include struggling to keep up with conversations when there is a lot of background noise, and difficulty understanding people who are far away, or speak quietly. Some children with glue ear also suffer from mild ear pain or balance problems, although this isn't very common.
What age group does it tend to affect most?
Glue ear usually affects children under the age of 7, and is most likely to be seen in those between the ages of 2 and 5. In fact, around one in five children around the age of 2 are affected by the condition.
Why should I be worried if my child has it?
Glue ear can occasionally delay language and speech development, particularly if hearing loss persists. Always see your GP if you're worried that your child may be having problems with her hearing.
Is glue ear contagious?
No, glue ear is not contagious, although the cold virus which may have caused it can be. If your child has glue ear, your needn't be concerned about infecting other children.
How is it treated?
In most cases, glue ear will clear up on its own within three months, so doesn't need to be treated, just monitored by your doctor. However, if symptoms do persist, your GP may recommend treatment, especially if he's concerned that the hearing loss may interfere with your child's language and speech development. In these circumstances, grommets or t-tubes may be suggested. These are inserted during a minor operation, and will drain the glue-like fluid from the middle ear.
Will it have any lasting health effects?
It's very unlikely that your child will suffer any long-lasting effects, so try not to worry. However, in very few cases there can be a minor delay in speech and language development, due to the moderate hearing problems caused by glue ear. This is usually only temporary and is more likely to occur in children who suffer from recurrent glue ear - when the condition returns even after treatment.
'Ollie was basically mute until he was 14 months old. He didn't say a word, recognise his name or respond when we called him. Our elder son Max had been saying 'mama' and 'dada' at the same age, so we naturally started to get a bit concerned.
Our doctor referred us to a specialist who, after a hearing test, diagnosed Ollie with glue ear. He recommended grommets, so that fluid could be drained from the middle ear, which were inserted almost immediately.
Although Ollie had to have a general anaesthetic - which is always worrying - it was a very simple procedure, and we noticed the difference almost straight away! He started making more noises, saying 'mama' and 'dada', and by the time he was 2 years old had caught up with his little friends, talking in full sentences. The only noticeable difference was that Ollie still had slight difficulty with particular sounds at the beginning of words, so we took him to see a speech therapist. She gave us a few pointers and some exercises to work on, which is helping a lot.
We're so pleased that we found out what the problem was and did something about it early on.'