Otitis media or ‘Glue Ear’ is the most common hearing problem that affects by far the largest group of children. It is treatable and usually temporary and, if managed correctly, does not present a problem beyond childhood.
Otitis media is an inflammation in the middle ear (the area behind the eardrum) that is usually associated with the build-up of fluid. The fluid may or may not be infected. Symptoms, severity, frequency, and duration of the condition vary. At one extreme is a single short period of thin, clear, non-infected fluid without any pain or fever but with a slight decrease in hearing ability. At the other extreme are repeated bouts with infection, thick “glue-like” fluid and possible hearing complications.
Fluctuating conductive hearing loss nearly always occurs with all types of glue ear. In fact it is the most common cause of hearing loss in young children. Otitis media is the most frequently diagnosed disease in infants and young children. It is common in children, largely due to physiology. The eustachian tube, a passage between the middle ear and the back of the throat, is smaller and nearly horizontal in children compared to adults. Therefore, it can be more easily blocked by conditions such as large adenoids and infections. Until the eustachian tube changes in size and angle as the child grows, children are more susceptible to glue ear.
Otits Media often causes a problem to hearing because the fluid that is present in the middle ear cavity limits the transfer of vibrations via the three tiny bones in the middle ear through to the eardrum then on to the inner ear. When fluid is present, the vibrations are not transmitted efficiently and sound energy is lost. The result may be mild or even moderate hearing loss. Therefore, speech sounds are muffled or inaudible.
Generally, this type of hearing loss is conductive and is temporary. However when the condition occurs over and over again, damage can be caused to the eardrum and the bones of the ear, presenting a longer term problem.
Otitis Media will often hit a child at a critical time in their development of speech and language, which can present problems for the future, even beyond the time when the condition has improved. This is why we believe a child with otitis media should be pro-actively dealt with, rather than simply left to “grow out” of the condition. The first few years of life are especially critical for development and if a hearing loss exists, a child does not get the full benefit of language learning experiences.
Otitis media without infection presents a special problem because symptoms of pain and fever are usually not present. Therefore weeks, months or even years can go by before parents suspect a problem. During this time, the child may miss out on some of the information that can influence speech and language development.
Even if there is no pain or fever, there are other signs you can look for that may indicate chronic or recurring fluid in the ear:
- Wanting the television or radio louder than usual
- Misunderstanding directions
- Unexplained irritability
- Pulling or scratching at the ears