Glue ear is one of the most common childhood illnesses, effecting 1 in 5 pre-school children, with 8 out of 10 children experiencing glue ear before the age of 10.

What Is Otitis Media With Effusion (OME)?

Otitis media with effusion (OME) is the medical name for glue ear. You may hear your audiologist or GP use either term to refer to your child’s condition.

In order for your child to be able to hear clearly, their middle ear (behind the eardrum) needs to be kept full of air. The air travels through the eustachian tube which runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat.

In children this tube is not as vertical and wide as it will be when they get older and as a result it doesn’t work as well. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, air cannot enter the middle ear. When this happens, the cells lining the middle ear begin to produce fluid. This is a runny liquid which can get thicker as it fills the middle ear. With fluid blocking the middle ear, it becomes harder for sound to pass through to the inner ear, making quieter sounds difficult to hear. Glue ear can affect one or both ears.

Check out this video to learn more about it:

Glue Ear Animation
Video courtesy of NHS Choices

What Can Cause Glue Ear?

The following things can contribute to glue ear:

  • Colds & Flu
  • Allergies
  • Passive Smoking
  • Ear Infections

Glue ear is also very common in children with cleft palate, or with genetic conditions such as Down’s syndrome, as they often have smaller eustachian tubes that don’t function well.

How Do I Tell If My Child Has Glue Ear?

The following signs may indicate that your child has glue ear:

  • Changes in behaviour
  • Becoming tired or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Preferring to play alone
  • Not responding to their name when called
  • Speech sound errors/ Unclear speech
  • Delayed Language Development

What Should I Do If I think My Child Has Glue Ear?

If you are concerned about your child’s hearing you should arrange an appointment with your GP. Your GP will examine your child’s ears and they should be able to tell if they have glue ear. If your child is in any pain or if there are any signs of infection your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

If your GP diagnoses your child with glue ear, they are likely to monitor your child for the first three months. This is known as ‘watchful waiting’. If the symptoms continue your GP will typically refer you on to your local audiology department.

What Will Happen At My Child’s Audiology Appointment?

The audiologist will examine your child’s ears and a further assessment will be carried out. This will include a tympanometry test, which measures how well the eardrum can move. If there is fluid in the middle ear the eardrum won’t move properly.

A graph (called a tympanogram) will show the results straight away. A hearing test should also be done to check if the glue ear is affecting your child’s hearing and by how much. These tests are very quick and are completely painless.

The audiologist should explain the results of all the tests and discuss the best way to manage your child’s symptoms. It’s a good idea to monitor the glue ear with repeated tests at least three months apart. For most children, the glue ear will clear up in this time. If it hasn’t, you may be offered grommets or temporary hearing aids.

How Can I Support My Child While They Have Glue Ear?

Children’s hearing can often be affected for long periods of time while waiting to see if their glue ear clears up naturally or while on the waiting list to have the grommet operation or to have hearing aids fitted. It is important to support your child’s speech and language development during this time by:

  • Getting your child’s attention by waving, knocking the table or tapping their shoulder lightly before giving them an instruction or asking them a question.
  • Getting down to your child’s level and facing them when you are talking. Don’t move around while you’re talking as this will make it very difficult for your child to hear your voice.
  • Being careful not to cover your mouth with your hands, eat or chew gum while talking to your child as this will muffle any sounds you are making.
  • Group conversations can be difficult for a child with hearing loss to follow. Make it easier by asking everyone to take their turn talking.
  • Supporting your child by using visual cues, where possible, during conversations e.g. point to what you are talking about, use natural gestures to support your meaning.
  • Reducing background noise as much as possible e.g. turning off the radio/tv/ washing machine, closing windows, shutting doors.
  • Showing your child’s teacher their most recent audiogram. Explain to them what your child can and can’t hear. You should also encourage your child’s teacher to consider their positioning in the classroom and to assess the level of background noise present to support optimum hearing. You can also direct your child’s teacher to the following video which demonstrates the impact background noise may have on your child’s ability to hear in the classroom.

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