Glue ear in toddlers and children – signs, grommets and treatment

What you need to know about glue ear symptoms and causes in your child - plus we explain what 'grommets' treatment is and how it works...

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Ever feel like your little one’s just not listening to you? 🙉

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No, we don’t mean them ignoring you telling them to clear their toys up 😂 but like they can’t properly hear what you’re saying? Maybe you’ve had to repeat yourself a few times?

If so, it might be worth checking to see if they’re struggling because of a condition common amongst little ones, called glue ear.

In this article, we’ll tell you what glue ear is, symptoms to look out for, how long it usually lasts, and what treatments are available

What is glue ear?

Glue ear – also known as otitis media with effusion (OME), or serious otitis media – affects the area behind the eardrum, known as the middle ear.

Basically, this area fills with a sticky, glue-like fluid, instead of air, which is what makes it so difficult for children to hear.

It sounds really scary – but it’s actually really common among under 7s, especially those between the ages of 2 and 5.

Around 8 out of 10 children have had this infection at least once by the time they’re 10, according to the NHS.

Glue ear symptoms: what does glue ear look like?

The main symptoms to keep an eye (or ear) out for are:

  • Moderate hearing loss in one or both ears (we’d best describe this as what you’d hear if you stuck both your fingers in your ears, or if you were trying to listen underwater)
  • Difficulty keeping up with conversations and interactions (especially if there’s background noise, or you’re dealing with quiet people)
  • Discomfort in the ear
  • Ear ache/mild ear pain (this is quite rare)
  • Occasionally, balance problems (this is rare, too)

Your toddler’s hearing won’t go completely, if they’ve got glue ear – so if their hearing does fully go, it may well be something else, and you should see a medical professional as soon as possible.

However, the more severe the glue ear is, the harder hearing can be for them. Even during a single episode of glue ear, your toddler’s hearing loss can change from day to day.

Speech can be affected, too, but this typically won’t be an issue in a standard case, only a case that’s not clearing up quickly. The more severe the glue ear, the more likely it is to affect their speech development.

Finally, you won’t be able to see the gluey stuff in their ears, so best to take them to the docs to get a proper diagnosis.

What are the causes of glue ear?

Glue ear’s one of medicine’s great mysteries – docs don’t yet know exactly what triggers it, but they do know it’s related to the eustachian tube, through which fluid normally drains away from the middle ear.

When this stops functioning properly, fluid builds up, causing glue ear. Over time, this build-up of fluid prevents the eardrum from working like it should.

There are many reasons this may happen but generally, in young kids the shape of the tube means it’s more easily blocked.

Dr Lowri Kew also notes that some other potential causes could be:

  • Allergies
  • Enlarged adenoids (small lumps of tissue at the back of your nose)
  • Repeated colds or throat infections (which cause more mucus in the throat, making blockage easier)
  • Repeated ear infections
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Children with genetic conditions like Down’s Syndrome and cystic fibrosis are more likely to suffer from it.

You can read more about ear infection causes and glue ear causes on the NHS website.

Should I be worried if my child has glue ear?

Well, yes – glue ear’s nothing to sniff at, especially since it can occasionally delay language and speech development, particularly when the lack of hearing persists.

But you shouldn’t panic, at all. Instead, you should always go straight to see your GP if you’re worried that your child may be having problems with their hearing.

glue ear

Glue ear treatment – what options are there?

In most cases, glue ear will clear up on its own within a few weeks to a few months, so it doesn’t need to be treated, just monitored by your doctor.

But in some children (about one in 20 cases), it lasts for over a year.

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.

At this point, your child will usually see a specialised doctor, who may recommend something called ‘grommets’ or t-tubes to drain the fluid.

What’s a grommet and how do they work?

Grommets are as gross as they sound, unfortunately. Sometimes, you’ll hear them called ‘t-tubes’ or just ‘tiny tubes’.

Essentiall, they’re small tubes that are placed across your child’s eardrum during a very minor operation, which stay there to help the air circulate and stops the build up of the gluey fluid in the drum.

Dr Lowri Kew says they usually fall our naturally and painlessly, approximately 6 months after they’ve been put in.

Often, this really helps clear up glue ear.

Is glue ear contagious?

Probably the only good thing about glue ear is that it’s not chickenpox – it doesn’t spread like wildfire. So, no need to panic about passing it along to other children 😊

However, though glue ear is not contagious, the cold virus which may have caused it can be.

Will glue ear have any lasting health effects?

No doubt about it: glue ear sucks. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating and awkward.

But it is likely that your child won’t suffer any long-lasting effects, so please try not to panic 🙏

In a minute amount of glue ear cases, there can be a minor delay in speech and language development, due to the moderate hearing problems.

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.

How can I help my child with glue ear?

Unless you have magic superpowers (aside from the standard ones we already have as mums, obvs), you just have to help them wait it out.

We’d say that first things first you’ve got to be patient with your toddler, and remember that their hearing can vary day to day.

Do your best to reduce your toddler’s frustration, by:

  • Removing as much background noise as possible (like 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
  • Making sure all carers and teachers are aware of the best ways to communicate with your toddler.

Also, if your little one’s exhibiting signs of naughty behavior, it may well be because of their dulled hearing, and the fact they don’t know exactly what you want from them.

So use your judgment to see if that’s the case before they get a right royal telling off!

REMEMBER THIS IMPORTANT TIP: the gluey 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.

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Glue ear stories: what our mums said

Many of you have been in touch to share your glue ear warning signs and recovery stories…

“Has she had colds recently? How is her speech? Recognising of consonants etc?” asks mum Madonna, on our forum.

“I got both of mine referred to audiology by my GP – it turned out they both had moderate hearing loss from glue ear and needed grommets (S had hers at 5, M had his at 2).

“We had the [usual] ‘is she just ignoring us’ issues with S but when we had her checked it was a relief that something could be done. The improvement was more marked in M as he had less language before his operation, but we’ve no regrets for either.

“Both sets of grommets are coming out naturally, although S has residual glue ear and may need more treatment. We had to push quite hard but if you know what you want you can usually get a referral I find.”

“My niece had this,” MFMer MummyJK tells us.

“She is 3 years old & had grommets fitted a few weeks ago. She was only diagnosed at the beginning of the year because her speech wasn’t coming along as it should.

“She is doing absolutely fine now though & has come on in leaps & bounds in just the few weeks she has had them fitted.”

And as a word of support for mums and dads worried about letting their little ones have the (very straightforward) op to get grommets fitted, MrsSH2B wants to let you know why SHE thinks it worth it.

“As someone who also suffered from glue ear myself, which was massively neglected. (I didn’t get my first set of grommets until I was around 7 by which point most of the damage had been done). I have not thought twice about allowing for my sons op to go ahead so early.

“I have moderate to severe loss in both ears & wear hearing aids. This is all due to the years of damage caused by frequent ear infections where the fluid could not drain.

“I still suffer from so many problems now and I would hate for my little boy to go through what I have been through.

“I know it’s a worry putting your baby through surgery and there will always be numerous risks in any operation but it really is such a short procedure and if done early there are less chances of problems in the future and less chances of affecting their schooling.”

Another MFM mum, who remains anonymous, also told us this:

“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.”

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