Glue ear: signs and tests
How does glue ear affect a child?
As well as causing painful ears and dulled hearing, glue ear can also affect balance, speech, emotional well-being and behaviour.
Younger children may have problems with their language development or speech. Particularly if glue ear lasts a long time, children can develop difficulties communicating or socialising.
Older children have described a 'shut-in' feeling, caused by dulled hearing and the physical sensations from the middle ear.
If you suspect that your child might have glue ear, look for the following signs. This will help you understand your child and make it easier to obtain the support they need (such as speech therapy or help at school). If you would like further guidance in spotting the signs of glue ear, please contact our Advisory Service.
What are the signs of glue ear?
Children with glue ear experience differing levels of hearing loss: in some cases there may be no loss of hearing; in other cases it may be quite severe. The level of hearing loss may also change from day to day.
Watch out for the following signs of glue ear (but remember that not every child affected will display these signs):
- Appearing inattentive or prone to daydreaming
- "Hearing only when they want to"
- Turning up the TV
- Mishearing words when not looking at the speaker and failing to hear sounds from outside their field of vision
- Talking more loudly
- Talking less
- Mispronouncing words
- Speaking less clearly than normal
- Appearing fretful, due to the discomfort of ear infections which often come before - and sometimes after - glue ear
- Becoming withdrawn, quiet or anxious when in groups, because of their difficulty in hearing what others are saying
- Being grumpy or tired at the end of the day, due to the effort of having to concentrate to hear what people are saying
- Becoming over-active or having temper tantrums. Not being able to hear properly is frustrating!
- Feeling unsettled or left out of activities
- Asking for things to be repeated
- Having difficulty following what is being said in noisy environments or large rooms
Having a hearing ability that changes from month to month, especially in winter
What should I do if I suspect my child has glue ear?
Trust your judgement and consult your family doctor. If possible, arrange an appointment close to a time when you are fairly sure that your child's hearing will be affected. If you would like to discuss your child's glue ear before visiting a specialist, please contact our Advisory Service.
What will happen when I visit the doctor?
Your doctor will probably start by asking about your child's general health, and about how the child's hearing has been affected and for how long.
Your doctor will want to check whether the eardrums show an acute infection, and may then suggest a hearing test.
If your child does have glue ear but it does not seem to be clearing, the doctor may refer you to a practice nurse, an audiologist, or to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist for further tests.
When meeting with one of these health professionals, you will be asked more detailed questions about your child's ears, hearing and development.
What tests might a health professional perform to see if my child has glue ear?
Otoscopy is looking into your child's ears to see if any fluid can be seen behind the eardrums.
It can be tricky to get a good look at the eardrum, but it is useful to see if there are signs of acute infection - past or present.
Tympanometry finds out how flexible the ear is. For good hearing, the ear needs to be flexible, to let sound pass through it.
If the eardrum is too rigid, the sounds bounce back rather than passing through. One potential cause of this rigidity is glue ear.
To perform tympanometry, the tester places a small tube with a soft rubber tip at the entrance to the ear. This allows gentle air pressure changes to be applied. If the instrument shows that most sound is bounced back, the tester will know that your child has glue ear.
Audiometry tests for the quietest sounds a child can hear. These sounds are usually high or low pitches tones.
Sometimes this test is performed by asking children to listen to names of toys and to point out the toy they think they heard.
A school-aged child will usually be asked to press a button when they hear a sound presented through earphones.
Younger children are often told to play a game, such as putting a peg in a board when they hear the sound.
Infants usually won't wear earphones, so the tester will see if the child turns towards a loudspeaker or sound-making toy.
By decreasing the level of the sound, the tester can work out the quietest sounds that the child can hear.
If my child is found to have glue ear, what happens next?
Don't worry! We have information on the next steps in this process: the different treatments for glue ear.
For more information on glue ear, have a look at our factsheet on glue ear.
If you have any unanswered questions, please get in touch with our Advisory Service.