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Glue Ear: Causes, symptoms and treatments

Glue Ear is one of the most common childhood ear conditions. It can affect 1 in 5 pre-school children, and 8 in 10 children will experience Glue Ear before the age of 10.

What is Glue Ear?

Glue Ear, or Otitis Media with Effusion (OME) to give it its medical name, is when the Middle Ear (a space behind the eardrum) becomes filled with a thick runny liquid which can make hearing sound muffled. It can affect one, or both ears.

Usually the Middle Ear is filled with air. This Middle Ear space is connected to the nasal passage via the Eustachian Tube, which incidentally, is why when you swallow as you are going through a tunnel or in an aeroplane, you can alleviate the pressure building up in your ears by making them “pop” as you equalise the air pressure.

However, for children this tube is not as straight nor wide as an adult’s and so doesn’t work as effectively to allow air into the Middle Ear. When this happens, the cells in the lining of the Middle Ear start to produce a fluid/mucus that can become quite thick and sticky (hence the term: Glue). This fluid impacts the ability of sound to pass through the space and can cause hearing problems for the child.

What can cause Glue Ear?

Glue Ear can be caused by conditions such as colds, allergies, ear infections and passive smoking.

It is also very common in children with genetic conditions such as Down’s Syndrome due to a smaller Eustachian Tube size, or in children with a cleft palate. It can also run in families.

What are the signs of Glue Ear in children?

If you have noticed any of the following signs in your child, it could be due to Glue Ear:

  • A change to their behaviour
  • Not responding to their name when called
  • Tiredness or irritability
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Delayed speech and language development
  • Speaking without clarity/making speech errors
  • Ear discomfort

Sometimes children have even been misdiagnosed with Autism, Dyslexia or learning difficulties when their issues have actually been due to Glue Ear, so it’s important to get any symptoms your child may be experiencing checked out for hearing- or ear-related causes

How is Glue Ear diagnosed by an audiologist?

If you suspect that your child may have signs of Glue Ear then book an Ear Health Check at the angli-EAR Hearing clinic.

The audiologist will carefully and gently examine inside your child’s ears visually and perform a hearing test to determine how well your child can hear. This test will also include a tympanometry test which measures how the eardrum moves. If mucus is present in the Middle Ear, the eardrum won’t move properly due to the fluid buildup behind it.

Your audiologist will discuss the results with you and suggest ways to manage the symptoms. We recommend that your child is checked every three months if they are diagnosed with Glue Ear. For most children, Glue Ear will clear up by itself within that time period, but for other children with more persistent cases of Glue Ear, other solutions may be required.

How can symptoms be relieved?

Medication such as antibiotics can help relieve symptoms of Glue Ear if the cause is an infection, in which case your audiologist will refer to your GP. Steaming can also help to thin the mucus and bring relief from clogged ears. Decongestants could also be used, please seek advice from a pharmacist or your GP.

For more persistent cases of Glue Ear, grommets or temporary hearing devices may be recommended. Grommets are tiny tubes that are inserted into the eardrum. They allow air to pass through the eardrum, keeping the air pressure on either side equal. Grommets usually stay in place for 6 to 12 months and then fall out naturally. If we think this may be an option for your child we will make a referral to your GP.

What support and self management is there for Glue Ear?

Whilst Glue Ear in many children will clear up naturally, there could be a long period of waiting time whilst waiting to see or whilst waiting for grommets (1-2 years) on the NHS, or temporary hearing devices to be fitted.

To ensure that your child’s speech and language isn’t impacted during this time you can help by:

  • Reducing background noise as much as possible: turn off the TV, radio, washing machine etc. Close the door or window.
  • Getting your child’s attention in other ways such as tapping them gently before talking to them, or by waving or knocking on a hard surface.
  • Ensure your child can see your face when you are talking to them, don’t move around or cover your mouth.
  • Don’t eat or chew gum while talking to your child. This will muffle what you are saying.
  • Use gestures when you are talking to emphasise your meaning. For example, point to what it is you are talking about if possible. Mime actions to add weight to your words.
  • Speak with your child’s teacher to explain that your child is experiencing hearing difficulties. If you have an audiogram from your audiologist (a chart that shows the child’s level of hearing loss), show them so that they can implement strategies such as where the child’s desk is situated in the classroom, away from background noise or where they can see and hear the teacher more easily.
  • Consider bone conduction headphones. These look and work in the same way as traditional earphones but the “earbuds” sit on the bones. Sound vibrations can travel through to the Inner Ear via the skull, so bone conduction headphones can work well to bypass the fluid build-up.
  • Glue Ear app. The free Hear Glue Ear app delivers glue ear information, advice, books, songs and listening games in a format that children like and recognise. There is also a hearing game to help parents gauge their child’s hearing loss at home

If you suspect your child may be struggling with Glue Ear, please book in to see us for an Ear Health Check