One of the most common childhood conditions, glue ear is where the empty middle part of the ear canal fills up with a glue-like fluid, causing temporary hearing loss. Many things can contribute to glue ear, such as colds and flu, allergies and passive smoking. This sticky condition usually clears up within three months, but some children have ‘recurrent’ glue ear, and long-term symptoms can affect hearing and speech development, and can cause children to fall behind at school.
The most common symptom of glue ear is temporary hearing loss which can affect both ears at the same time. You might also notice your child complaining of an earache or ear pain, or saying that they can hear ringing or buzzing sounds. Remember, ear pain can also be a symptom of earwax buildup, an object stuck in the ear or a perforated eardrum. It can also be an indication of a dental abscess, tonsillitis or an ear infection, so it’s important to get your child checked by a doctor.
Signs Your Child Is Struggling To Hear
Always take your child to the doctor if they are having hearing problems. They may be struggling to hear if they often:
- Speak more loudly or quietly than usual
- Are difficult to understand
- Ask people to repeat what they say
- Ask for the TV or music to be turned up loud
- Struggle to hear people far away
- Become easily distracted when people are talking
- Seem tired or irritable because it’s harder to listen
Source: NHS Choices
Your child’s doctor will generally use a small scope with a magnifying glass and light to search for fluid inside the ear canal and diagnose glue ear. This procedure should be painless. If your child has been suffering from glue ear for more than three months, they may be referred to a specialist for hearing tests that can help to determine how severe any hearing loss is and pinpoint its cause.
Glue ear isn’t necessarily always treated—your doctor will usually wait and see if the symptoms become better on their own. This is because there is no effective medicine for glue ear and it typically clears up on its own within three months. However, you could be recommended the following:
A doctor may recommend this treatment while waiting for your little one’s symptoms to improve. Autoinflation can help fluid in the ear to drain and is done either by blowing up a special balloon using one nostril at a time, or by swallowing while holding the nostrils closed. As autoinflation has to be done several times a day, it is not usually recommended for children under three years old.
If your child’s glue ear symptoms are affecting their learning or development, or if they have already had severe hearing loss before contracting glue ear, they may be referred to a specialist in hospital. Children who have been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome or a cleft lip and palate may also be referred, as glue ear is more common and less likely to get better by itself in these instances. The two main treatments here are temporary hearing aids or grommets. In rare cases, surgery may be offered to remove some glands at the back of the nose—the specialist in hospital will help you to decide on the best treatment option for your child.
Grommets are small, temporary tubes that are placed in your child’s ear during surgery to help drain fluid away and keep the eardrum open. The surgeon makes a tiny hole in the eardrum and inserts the grommet into the space. It should fall out naturally within six to 12 months, as the ear gets better. Your child may have an anaesthetic, but these are safe and, as the hole in the eardrum is tiny, risk of infection is also very much reduced.
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Ranj Singh, which you can also read here!
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