Helping all children become happy learners
Glue Ear, known medically as Otitis Media, occurs when the middle ear becomes inflamed as a result of liquid filling the cavity behind the ear drum where the ear bones are. The fluid may be thin, clear and can present without pain or fever. However, if the liquid becomes infected it can become thick and glue like. Liquid in the middle ear reduces the transmission of sound and is nearly always experienced as hearing loss. Medically this is known as fluctuating conductive hearing loss and is the most common cause of temporary hearing loss in young children. However, when glue ear occurs repeatedly it can lead to permanent hearing loss though this is very rare.
What causes glue ear?
Glue ear is caused by a blockage in the eustachian tube that links the middle ear to the back of the throat. When working normally the eustachian tube allows the secretions of glands in the middle ear to drain away. However, during infections, such as the common cold, the tube can become blocked and the secretions of the ear build up. This in turn causes a loss of sound transmission through the middle ear. This is often the only symptom of glue ear and can last several weeks or months. Sometimes pain and/or fever can occur and this can be due to a secondary bacterial infection in the middle ear.
Who is affected?
Nearly all children will experience at least one episode of glue ear at some time before starting school. It is so prevalent in children because their eustachian tubes are smaller and more horizontal than adults. This makes it easier to become blocked by infections and swollen adenoids. Some children can be more prone to repeated glue ear and this repeated hearing loss can significantly affect their learning. This hearing loss can last for weeks or months at a time without pain or fever symptoms. Parents are often unaware of their child's glue ear or the accompanying conductive hearing loss.
How does glue ear affect learning?
Fluctuating conductive hearing loss caused by glue ear can significantly impact speech and language development. From birth, children need to be able to hear clearly the speech of others in order to learn the sounds and then words that form their language. A mild loss of hearing that is sustained or repeated will often lead to phonological gaps in the child's knowledge of letters and sounds. This may impact on their own speech production and their ability to acquire and use vocabulary. Literacy difficulties often follow.
How can you recognise children with fluctuating conductive hearing loss?
As glue ear can present without pain or fever symptoms the children affected are generally unaware that they are experiencing mild hearing loss. Parents may attribute poor listening to 'just not listening' behaviour and equally staff in schools make assume that a child has poor listening skills. However, it is worth considering glue ear as a possible cause when a child shows the following signs:
Showing a lack of attention
Turning up the volume on the computer or television
Not following instructions
Not engaging socially with others
Frequently touching their ears
Advice for parents
If you are worried that your child has hearing loss talk to your doctor about a hearing test. This can help establish the extent of any hearing loss. However, it is important to test on at least two occasions. A clear result may only mean that on the day of testing the child's hearing was normal. The real difficulty with fluctuating conductive hearing loss, caused by repeated glue ear, is that it is intermittent and does necessarily show itself on the first test. If you continue to have concerns ask for tests to be repeated.