Overcoming Developmental Delays Caused by Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ear goes by several names, glue ear, serous otitis media, and otitis media with effusion. All of these terms mean the same thing though, the middle ear space, which is normally filled with air fills up with fluid. This condition occurs when the auditory tube becomes blocked by overgrown sinus tissue, thick mucous or just because, anatomically, it is too close to other structures. Small children are much more prone to fluid in the ear.

Female doctor examining boy's ear with otoscope while sitting by father in hospital
Maskot / Getty Images

While fluid in the ear can easily be treated using a minor surgery in which tiny synthetic tympanostomy tubes are placed inside the auditory tube to hold it open. However, fluid in the ear frequently causes delayed development in children because it is so difficult to diagnose. While the condition can sometimes be accompanied by frequent ear infections in many cases it produces no symptoms.

In more difficult cases, like that of my daughter, it may produce symptoms but most doctors are not skilled enough to recognize the subtle changes in the appearance of the ear drum that indicate a problem. Despite specifically having her checked for fluid in the ear my daughter went undiagnosed until she was 2 1/2 not walking or talking and we took her to an extremely skilled ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

Fluid in the ear typically occurs at a time in a child's development when they are normally developing speech. What is so discouraging is that this problem can persist even after fluid in the ear has been treated and there is currently no cure. While speech therapy is beneficial for many of these children developmental delay can be significant. That's why I was so excited to come across a story about an adult who suffered developmental delays as a child from fluid in the ear and how she overcame these challenges.

The news story, as it appeared in the Hastings and Saint Leonard's Observer in England, is about Hannah Scott who was born with fluid in the ear but went on to earn her Ph.D. As a child Scott was placed in a special education school due to her severe speech delays, she didn't let it stop her though and went on not only to earn a Ph.D but to help others with disabilities. Dr. Scott said: "It has really been a battle for me and I have been fighting all the way to overcome these obstacles. Rather than accept them, I retaliated, became obstinate and fought against them." The 34-year-old woman who lives in England now lectures part time at a University to help students training to teach people with disabilities.

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2 Sources
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  1. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Ear Infections in Children.

  2. Steele DW, Adam GP, Di M, Halladay CH, Balk EM, Trikalinos TA. Effectiveness of tympanostomy tubes for otitis media: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2017;139(6):e20170125. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-0125

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.