Get an earful



Get an earful


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 uncomfortable.’


Ear infections


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 for children 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

prescribe antibiotics.


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.


Glue ear


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 them alone!





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.


Hearing loss


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 magnet outside

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 all.’


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!’





January/February 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing