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Glue ear

A condition that can affect a child's ability to hear, glue ear is one of the most common illnesses in young children. It is also known as otitis media with effusion (OME) and occurs when the middle ear becomes filled with fluid. Although it is often linked to ear infections, an infection is not always present. Glue ear can delay speech development and ability to learn in young children, cause behavioural problems and lead to temporary hearing problems.

What is glue ear?

The ear is divided into three sections. Glue ear occurs in the middle ear, the part that has three tiny bones that carry sound vibrations from the eardrum in the outer ear - which includes the pinna, or ear, you can see extending from the head and the ear canal - to the cochlea and nerves to the brain in the inner ear.

The middle ear needs to be filled with air to function properly, which is where the Eustachian tube is useful. This tube runs from the back of the throat to the middle ear. If the Eustachian tube gets blocked and there is not enough air, cells in the middle ear produce a runny fluid that can thicken and become sticky as it builds up. When there is too much fluid in the middle ear the three tiny bones cannot vibrate and pass sounds adequately to the inner ear, causing hearing to be muffled.

Who is mostly likely to be affected by glue ear?

The Eustachian tubes are not fully developed in young children, and because they are not as vertical or wide as they normally are in adults, they are more susceptible to getting blocked. This is why glue ear is most common in children, especially those between two and five years old, though it can occur into adolescence and even in adults. On average, at any given time 20% of two year olds will have glue ear.

Children who have not breastfed or who have siblings with glue ear are more likely to develop glue ear, as are those from large families. The condition is more common in boys than girls but researchers do not yet understand the reason for this. Children are more susceptible to glue ear if they live in a house with cigarette smokers.

Glue ear is more prevalent in the winter months, along with infections. Conditions that affect the Eustachian tube can cause glue ear, including:

  • Inflammation, due to an infection such as a cold or flu, allergies or passive smoking
  • Blockage of the Eustachian tube, such as from inflamed adenoids
  • Children who may have small Eustachian tubes such as those with cleft lip and palate or those with a genetic condition such as Down's syndrome or cystic fibrosis.

Children usually outgrow getting glue ear as the get older, usually by the age of 12, when their Eustachian tubes change in size and children are less prone to developing infections.

Getting water in the ear during a bath, shower or swimming will not cause glue ear, nor will a build-up of wax.

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