Glue Ear

Glue ear is a surprisingly common condition, affecting about 75% of children by age three. Supernanny expert Dr David Albert explains what to do if your child is affected.

What is Glue Ear?

Glue ear is a condition where the middle ear fills with glue-like fluid instead of air. It is common in young children and causes dulled hearing.

Where does the glue in Glue Ear come from?

The ear drum is a thin mobile membrane at the end of the ear canal that transmits sounds (vibration) to the little bones (ossicles) of the middle ear. The middle ear is a space that lies deep in the eardrum and should be filled with air at the same pressure as outside. The air normally comes from the back of the nose via a tube called the Eustachian tube. This narrow tube is prone to blockage in children, and the lining can swell up with infections or allergies. As the air becomes absorbed by the lining of the middle ear, a negative pressure develops and the ear drum is sucked in.

In susceptible children, thick mucous-like fluid may be secreted into the ear behind the drum leading to the condition which is commonly called glue ear. This fluid interferes with the passage of sound into the ear and the child becomes deafened or suffers pain in the ears.

Will it get better by itself? Yes. Once established, glue ear will usually resolve itself by the age of six or seven.

The symptoms of deafness and infections can vary from child to child but can, in some children, require medical or surgical attention. The few potential complications from glue ear are rare but it is worth keeping a close eye on it until it clears up.

Is it safe to just leave it?

Yes. Most children will have no complications. In children who experience repeated infections of glue ear there is a risk of tympanosclerosis (chalky-white scars on the ear drum) or perforations on the ear drum. Overall the risk of complications and the need for surgical treatment is small.

Common ear infections

The type of ear infection that most parents are all too familiar with involves the middle ear (the space behind the ear drum). The infection often follows a cold and flares up in the Eustachian tube, the space in the ear that usually contains air. The infection can increase until the pressure builds behind the drum and the drum perforates with a discharge of pus from the ear. The pressure of the pus in a contained space can cause pain, discomfort and a high temperature.

How common are middle ear infections?

Middle ear infections (otitis media) will affect about 75% of children by the age of three. Many are mild and require no treatment but in some cases, medical follow up is needed.

What medication is used to treat middle ear infections?

Middle ear infections normally start off as viruses, so painkillers alone will usually manage the pain. More persistent infections can benefit from antibiotics.

Can middle ear infections have other complications?

Some children experience deafness and ear discharge. Complications such as meningitis are thankfully very rare.

Recurring middle ear infections

Children with recurrent infections will need to seek medical advice as they may have low immunity or allergies. Some may have infections in the adenoid, which is a single clump of tissue in the back of the nose. In some children the ears are normal between infections and in some there is persistent fluid (glue ear). In this group hearing loss and speech delay may be another concern.

Some children with recurrent infections benefit from a period on antibiotics. If the infections do not clear up with antibiotics, the child may need surgery.

Other common ear infections

The other common type of ear infection is an external ear infection of the skin of the ear canal. This can be painful and the ear may feel tender. This can sometimes occur after swimming.

Related links

  • Sleep Disordered Breathing: Sleep Disordered Breathing describes the relatively uncommon but disruptive range of conditions in which airflow through the mouth and nose is disturbed. Dr Michelle Wyatt answers your questions and explains what to do if your child is affected.
  • Immunisation: Health Visitor Anne Smith explains the immunisation process and shows what to expect in an immunisation timetable.
  • Bedwetting: Try to be patient – bedwetting is not her fault (or yours, for that matter!), and try to treat it as a challenge you work on together rather than a problem.
  • Sun Safety for Children: Nina Goad of the British Skin Foundation charity tells the Supernanny Team how children are best protected from the sun’s harmful rays.

Find out more

  • The Portland Hospital is London's only private hospital dedicated to the health of women and children.

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