What is glue ear, and what should you do if your toddler has it?
Glue ear (otitis media with effusion) is very common – around four out of five children have had this infection at least once by the time they’re 4 years old.
If your toddler is suffering from glue ear, his hearing will be dulled – similar to what you’d hear if you were underwater. His hearing doesn’t go completely, but the severity of glue ear varies, and even during a single episode your toddler’s hearing loss can change from day to day. Your toddler may also have discomfort in his ear.
Speech can be affected, but this isn’t usually a problem in a case that clears up quickly. But the more severe the glue ear, the more likely it is to affect his speech development.
When a child can’t hear well, interacting with others can be difficult. If hearing instructions or making himself understood is difficult, his behaviour can go downhill. The daily changes in hearing can mean your child is labelled as naughty when, in fact, he just doesn’t hear what’s wanted of him.
Glue ear is the result of the middle ear (the air-filled space behind the eardrum) becoming filled with a glue-like fluid. This means the nerves receive smaller vibrations from the eardrum and small bones in the middle ear for the brain to interpret as sound - in effect this turns the volume down.
There are many reasons this may happen but generally in your young child the shape of the tube means it’s more easily blocked.
When your toddler has a cold or other infection, more mucus is produced in the throat and ear, and this can then block the tube.
Other causes are:
Glue ear can get better after a few weeks without any treatment. But in some children (about one in 20 cases), it lasts for over a year.
Your GP will check your toddler’s ears to ensure they aren’t blocked with wax. In glue ear, the eardrum – which is normally shiny – can look dull and fluid may be seen behind it.
If there’s any concern about hearing or speech, a hearing test can be done. If the results are abnormal, it’s usually repeated at a later date to check if your toddler still has glue ear.
Smokers in the house increase the risk of glue ear, so it could be a good incentive to quit.
Dr Lowri Kew, GP
It’s important to be patient with your toddler and remember that hearing can vary day to day although, obviously, your toddler may just be ignoring you!
Remove as much background noise as possible, such as the TV or washing machine, especially when talking or reading to your toddler. Attract his attention before speaking and talk face-to-face and at his level. Speak clearly and louder than usual, but don’t shout.
Make sure all carers and teachers are aware of the problem and know the best ways to communicate with your toddler. It’s useful to understand that your toddler’s naughty behaviour can be because of dulled hearing, and try to reduce your toddler’s frustration as much as possible.
For more info on glue ear, visit the National Deaf Children’s Society.
As your child grows, so does the tube that drains the middle ear. This is why most children grow out of glue ear – although even adults can suffer after a cold. If your child’s communication skills have suffered, he will most likely catch up with his peers, but he might need special help for this.
“George had recurrent ear infections from 6 months. His older sister, Annie, had talked at a very early age but we noticed when George was 2 that his words were unclear. We could understand him but he often couldn’t make himself understood to other children or adults.
“He hated being left out when no one could understand him, and he became frustrated when asking for food or a drink. At playgroup he was quiet and made few friends.
“We asked for a hearing test, which was quite abnormal, and were offered grommets. But our GP suggested that we ask for a repeat of the test a few months later, by which time it had improved. He’s now a happy, sociable little boy with lots of friends – and we can’t shut him up!”
Sarah, mum to Annie, 6, and George, 4
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