Everybody suffers some irritation in the ears or deafness with a head cold. In young children whose immune systems have not fully developed, this symptom is exaggerated and can cause poor performance or behaviour at school.
Glue ear is the common name given to otitis media with effusion. The head cold virus causes a discharge in the middle ear much like the nasal discharge. This causes hearing loss much the same as getting bath water in your ear. The head cold virus causes also causes congestion in the Eustachian tube (the tube that connects your ear to the back of your nose). The eardrum does not burst to let the ear discharge out, so can only escape through the Eustachian tube once the congestion has settled down. Four out of five school age children in UK suffer with glue ear, which cures itself within three months. One in five children suffer glue ear, which persists longer than three months and can cause difficulty hearing. As the child gets older and suffers more head colds, the immune system matures and the problem usually disappears after the age of 10. Passive smoking and hay fever can cause the problem to last longer.
In most cases the glue ear gets better and there is only a temporary effect on school performance. In those children who suffer longer than three months, their academic performance may be affected. It is important to have your child's hearing tested if you suspect that there may be a problem with hearing, speech or behaviour at school. This service can be carried out by audiologists or at your local ENT clinic. If the hearing is found to be abnormal then a second hearing test is usually recommended a few weeks later to see if the problem has got better on its own. Most medications have been tested but not found to make the problem get better any quicker. Teaching your child to "pop their ears" can be useful. A device, the Otovent balloon can be purchased to aid this.
For those patients with persistent hearing loss there are three effective treatments:
As the main symptom in glue ear is hearing loss, one or two hearing aids can solve the problem. They should be worn until the glue ear problem has cleared up. This can occasionally take years.The main problem with hearing aids seems to be getting the patient to wear them! If worn regularly hearing aids are very effective. The aids may need to be replaced as the child's ear grows. A loose fit can cause whistling.
This operation (described in the post op advice part of this website) can be carried out with grommets for the treatment of glue ear. It helps the Eustachian tubes unblock.
This is an operation usually carried out under a general anaesthetic taking approximately five minutes. It is possible to go home the same day and return to school the next day if you have recovered from the effects of the anaesthetic. It is important not to get your ears wet for one week after the operation to prevent an infection. Grommets usually last one year and fall out naturally.
As the grommet has created a small hole in the eardrum to allow the ear discharge to evaporate occasionally there is so much ear discharge that it flows out of the ear as sticky yellow liquid. This condition is usually treatable with antibiotic/steroid eardrops for five days. If your doctor is unwilling to prescribe these then please return to the ENT clinic. Rarely the discharge does not get better and the grommets can be removed to solve the problem.
Three in twenty patients have a visible scar on the eardrum once the grommets have fallen out. This scar does not cause significant hearing impairment.
When the grommets fall out the eardrum heals up. In some patients this causes the glue ear to return. A further grommet may be required. Rarely the eardrum does not heal up once the grommet falls out and a further small operation (myringoplasty) is required to heal the hole in the eardrum.