"Glue ear" (otitis media with effusion) is the most common cause of childhood hearing loss, affecting up to 80% of children at some time during childhood.
While the condition is usually short-lived, resolving with no treatment, for some children, the condition persists over many months. As well as the hearing loss, children may experience difficulties with speech and language development and social behaviour, particularly in groups.
In those where the glue ear does not resolve, the effective treatment is a minor day-case procedure under a short general anaesthetic to ventilate the ear with tiny grommet tubes. These grow out of the ear drum over the following six to nine months.
Researchers in the UK have found a familial tendency to glue ear and believe this is due to a genetic problem in the way oxygen is metabolised in the lining of the middle ear, behind the ear drum. This poor oxygenation leads to inflammation in the lining of the ear with the production of fluid that fills the ear and impairs hearing.
Ventilating the ear with a grommet tube is effective while the tube is in place, but genetic treatment to improve oxygen metabolism in the ear might be a future, alternative treatment.
As most children outgrow the glue ear problem, there must be other factors apart from the poor oxygen metabolism influencing the formation of fluid in the ear, likely to be related to the frequent respiratory infections younger children experience.