Could it be glue ear?

It’s that time of year when kids get coughs, cold and bunged-up noses and ears. But if it seems as if your child can’t hear what you’re saying, there may be more to it than a simple head cold. Glue ear is one of the most common causes of hearing loss in young children– but the good news is that it’s easy to treat.


Do you often find yourself sighing that your toddler ‘just doesn’t listen!’ Finding kids’ TV far more interesting than Mummy’s requests and commands is perfectly normal, of course. But every now and then, a child who doesn’t seem to listen may actually have a hearing problem.

There’s lots of evidence that this can have a serious effect on your child’s development. Experts agree that hearing loss has a significant impact on speech and language progress and that in turn has a knock-on effect on reading and writing skills and social development. Children who have had hearing loss for several months may even need speech therapy. This will depend on how long your child has had the hearing loss and how the speech is affected. Speech therapy can be very effective in helping a child catch up with his peers.

What is glue ear?

It’s a build-up of thick, sticky fluid in the space within the middle ear, and very similar to what makes us a bit deaf when we have a cold. The eardrum usually vibrates in response to sound. Behind the eardrum is a space which is usually full of air and has three tiny bones in it. These bones are all hinged. They vibrate in response to the sound and send the sound across to the hearing nerve. So when that area is filled up with congestion, nothing is vibrating and it’s much harder for sound to get through.

Glue ear can be the result of a cold, but it can also just happen without any illness associated with it. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to prevent glue ear – it’s a natural consequence of children having very small tubes in their ears!

Spotting hearing problems

It can be hard to tell if a child has a problem or simply isn’t listening. Children might not respond if you call them from the next room. They might grab the remote and turn the TV up louder than other family members, have under-developed speech, or problems hearing in situations where there’s lots of background noise, such as noisy schools or nurseries.

If you think your child has a problem, go to your GP. It can be useful to write down exactly what your child does that makes you think he might have a problem. Or keep a diary for a week so you can identify particular situations which concern you. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to pick up these problems, as you’re so used to your child’s particular foibles – so don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t immediately spotted potential hearing loss.

The GP will investigate signs of glue ear by looking into your child’s ear. Light bounces off the eardrum in a healthy ear. But the inside of the ear of a child with glue ear will look dull and grey and sometimes fluid will be visible. If there are signs of glue ear, your GP will probably ask you to come back in a few weeks to see if things have improved. If they haven’t, your child will be referred to an audiology clinic for a hearing test.

At the hearing test

It’s a very simple, non-invasive test which doesn’t hurt at all. If your child is nervous, audiologist swill go out of their way to make the test fun and calm any fears. They will ask older children to put on headphones and listen to a series of beeps and tones. Children will be asked to indicate they have heard a sound by clapping, or moving a toy, for example, dropping a ball into a bucket. A very young child who can’t yet do that will be played sound from speakers or earphones. The audiologist will then observe how a child responds to those sounds – for example, by turning the head towards it.

A simple cure

Children will grow out of glue ear as they get older. Until then, grommets are a common solution to stop the fluid building up again. These are simply tiny plastic ventilation tubes inserted into your child’s ear tubes while under general anaesthetic. It’s a simple and quick procedure and your child will normally go in and come out of hospital the same day. The surgeon punctures the ear drum and sucks out all the congestion. He then inserts the grommet into that hole. The grommet keeps the hole open and allows air to circulate down the ear canal and through the middle ear.

Depending on how quickly children grow out of glue ear, they may need more than one operation. Grommets are a temporary solution. They stay in the ear drum for six to nine months and then they will be naturally pushed out and the hole will heal over. Often, that is enough. But some children go on to have a second or third set of grommets.

Some parents don’t like the idea of grommets, as they don’t want their children to go through several surgeries. Others prefer for their children not to undergo surgery at all. If this is the case, another solution which you might be offered is a small temporary hearing aid which sits behind the ear.


Jo noticed that her son Joshua, then three years old, found it hard to concentrate and didn’t appear to be listening properly when she talked to him. ‘At first, we thought it was because he was a little boy. We took him straight to our GP, who referred us to an audiologist. The audiologist tested him and found that he had glue ear and hearing loss in both ears, with his right ear slightly worse.’

The audiologist recommended waiting and Joshua went back for a hearing test every three months for a year. After he began reception, his hearing became worsened. ‘The teacher identified a problem with his speech,’ says Jo. ‘An ENT specialist recommended that Joshua should have grommets fitted in both ears. The procedure only took around 20 minutes. He was very groggy when he woke up, but he was soon bouncing around again. We noticed the effects almost immediately. His hearing since we had the grommets fitted is absolutely fine. He will need speech therapy, but apart from that he is a very happy, chatty little boy.’

Other causes of hearing loss

A burst eardrum which happens when bacteria gets into the fluid in the middle ear. The fluid expands and bursts through the eardrum, causing temporary hearing loss.

Ear infections which follow colds or flu can mean temporary hearing loss.

A genetic condition which can cause permanent hearing loss, either at birth or later on.

Childhood infections such as mumps and measles used to be a major cause of permanent hearing loss –a good reason to get your child vaccinated.

Meningitis, which causes permanent hearing loss in one in 10 children

Accidents, such as a knock to the head, can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

More info

Contact the NDCS Freephone helpline on 0808 800 8880 or visit


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