Ear problems are not only extremely painful: they can also cause hearing issues which
could impact on your child’s development. Glynis Kozma reports on a common complaint
which can spell trouble if left untreated
It’s that time of year when the wail of ‘Mummy, my ear hurts’ seems to ring round
every home with young children. Children
who are old enough to talk and to describe pain will certainly let you know if their
ears are hurting. But it can be difficult to tell what’s causing distress in children
who can’t yet express themselves.
‘When they are feeling pain, you may notice them pulling or tugging on their ears
in a way that they hadn’t done before,’ says Vicki Kirwin, audiology specialist at
the National Deaf Children’s Society. ‘You may notice the ear gets quite red if it’s
If your child has ear pain, it could well be an ear infection. Other symptoms include
fever and being sick. Ear infections often run alongside a separate condition called
glue ear. ‘Glue ear is a build-up of usually sterile fluid in the middle ear, which
on its own doesn’t cause any harm or damage, but prevents sound passing though the
ear as it normally would,’ explains Vicki.
‘There is a tube that runs between the ear and the back of the nose and throat and
all those childhood bugs get up inside it into that lovely warm, wet environment,’
she adds. ‘This causes the infection to develop and grow. The most common type of
infection forchildren is a middle ear infection – the area behind the ear drum.’
The advice these days is not to give antibiotics straight away as ear infections
are very common, and they usually get better by themselves. However, if the infection
hasn’t gone away within three days, Vicki advises going to the GP who will then probably
Repeated infections could be a sign of glue ear, or your child could just be prone
to them. There’s also some evidence that children with parents who are smokers, who
weren’t breast fed, and who have a family history of ear infections are more likely
to have repeated ear infections. If you’re concerned about your child’s ear infections,
start with your GP, who may refer your child to an ENT (ear, nose and throat) department
for further investigation.
For most children with glue ear, the condition will come and go relatively quickly,
says Vicki – as adults, we often experience congestion in our ears and it clears
up quickly afterwards. ‘But if it
persists for longer than three months some kind of management is needed,’ says Vicki.
‘The glue itself is not the concern as such: it’s more about the symptoms it causes,’
she adds. ‘If it causes a hearing problem which has lasted for more than three months
and is impacting on
the child’s development on a day-today basis, we would consider grommet surgery to
drain the fluid and help clear the ear, or temporary hearing aids to help overcome
hearing problems until
children grow out of it.’
Grommet surgery is used to manage glue ear. It’s a simple procedure which is usually
done in a day. ‘Your child is put under a short general anaesthetic, and the ENT
surgeon punctures the ear
drum and sucks out the fluid that has built up underneath,’ says Vicki.
‘The surgeon then inserts a grommet – a very small plastic tube – into that puncture
hole. Its role is to keep the hole open and allow air to circulate, and prevent further
fluid from building up. The grommet stays in the eardrum for eight or nine months
on average. Over time, the ear drum will naturally push it out and heal over. That
gives most kids time to grow out of the problem.’
A healthy pair of ears
Nine times out of 10, the best way to keep your child’s ears healthy is to leave
• If children push something into their ear, get them straight to your local A&E
or minor injuries unit to get that button or tiny piece of Lego removed by a medical
professional: you don’t want to risk pushing it further into the ear.
• Ear wax helps to protect the ears by trapping tiny bits of dust and dirt. It builds
up, dries up and then falls out. Every now and again a child might experience a build-up
of wax which plugs the ear and can cause pain. If that’s the case, eardrops from
the chemist should help to clear it.
• Never, ever stick anything into your child’s ear to clean it, particularly cotton
buds – these could damage the ear and push earwax further in. If your child has recently
had an ear infection or grommet surgery, your doctor may recommend ear plugs to wear
in the bath and shower, and while swimming.
Babies have a hearing test just after they are born. However, only around 50 per
cent of children with permanent hearing loss are born with it. The other 50 per cent
develop it after birth, in the
first three years of life. So it’s vital to get your child checked if you suspect
they can’t hear as well as they should.
Progressive hearing loss could be genetic, or it could be the result of an infection.
Measles, mumps and rubella can all cause hearing loss in children, as can the mother
picking up a very common virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) while pregnant. ‘There’s
no medical cure or treatment as such, but hearing problems can be managed,’
says Vicki. ‘That would usually mean hearing aids.’
Children who have very profound hearing loss which isn’t helped by
hearing aids may benefit from cochlear implants. ‘This is a device which is implanted
into the inner ear to stimulate the inner ear nerves,’ explains Vicki. ‘The child
then wears an external piece which looks like a hearing aid but is held on with a
the head. This converts sound from an acoustic signal into an electrical signal,
instead of amplifying sound like hearing aids do.’
If a hearing problem isn’t diagnosed, a child’s language will develop at a much slower
rate, or not at all, says Vicki. ‘Without language development, children will find
it hard to learn to read and write, so there will be quite a knock-on in terms of
their educational development. It also affects social development. Young children
need to be able to hear one another, play with one another, and learn to socialise.
We learn vocabulary just by overhearing other people’s conversations. Hearing loss
has a very significant impact.’
Picking up a problem early can make all the difference, says Vicki. ‘We can then
provide advice for parents, and interventions and strategies to help overcome some
of the problems. Most affected kids nowadays can enter school with age-appropriate
speech and language levels – the same levels as their hearing friends.’
Living in a hearing world
Harry, just four, was diagnosed as profoundly deaf when he was seven weeks old. ‘He
failed his newborn hearing screening numerous times and we were referred to our local
hospital where he had a lot of intense tests before the diagnosis,’ says mum Lucie
Herridge from Basingstoke in Hampshire.
‘An MRI scan discovered that Harry’s ears and cochlear are fully formed, but he is
missing the hairs on the cochlear needed to generate sound. He was fitted with hearing
aids in the hope of giving him some form of sound, but they didn’t work for him at
Harry was a perfect candidate for cochlear implants, so the family
decided to try them. ‘We had read and heard so much about them
and we really wanted to bring our child up in a hearing world with
every opportunity open to him,’ says Lucie. ‘The day of the operation was emotional
and scary. We felt very guilty sending our 14-month-old baby into surgery, but we
knew it was for a good cause and that he was in safe hands.’ To begin with, there
didn’t seem much difference in Harry’s hearing – but after six weeks he was responding
to his name, and then said his first ‘Mama’.
‘The difference in Harry’s hearing now is astounding,’ says Lucie.
‘He has gone from hearing absolutely nothing to hearing whispers.
He tests at around 30db, which is more than enough to be hearing
speech, and the aim is to keep on improving on this. He has been
signed off from speech therapy after just one session as his speech and listening
is at the level it should be for a three-year-old, which is incredible!’