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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 09:42 GMT
Stomach acid link to glue ear
Ear test
Glue ear is a common cause of deafness in children
A common cause of deafness in children could be caused by gastric juices accumulating in the middle ear via the Eustachian tube, research suggests.

Glue ear is a particular problem for young children and happens when viscous effusions that cannot be cleared by the normal process, accumulate in the middle ear.

There are thought to be several causes of glue ear, including bacterial and viral infection, allergy and possibly passive smoking.

An article in The Lancet reports how scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne investigated the possibility that stomach acid may be a contributory factor.


It would be good to make GPs aware of another possible cause of glue ear

Andrea Tasker, scientist
They looked at middle ear effusions from 54 children with glue ear and found 83% contained the stomach protein pepsin at concentrations of up to 1000-fold greater than those in the blood.

They believe the by-products of gastric reflux - the process where the stomach contents come back out of the stomach into the oesophagus - can reach the throat and then enter the Eustachian tube and middle ear.

In children, the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the throat, is at a different angle from adults and this makes it is easier for the reflux to get further into the Eustachian tube.

Andrea Tasker, who carried out the research, said: "Gastric juice that refluxes into the middle ear will cause transient damage to the Eustachian tube and the middle-ear mucosa before it can be neutralised, resulting in inflammation.

"This provides ideal conditions for secondary bacterial colonisation, leading to the symptoms associated with glue ear.

"It would be good to make GPs aware of another possible cause of glue ear."

Jennifer's Ear

Ear, nose and throat surgeon Michael Frampton, who practices at Bedford Hospital, said it was quite plausible that gastric reflux could be one of several causes of glue ear.

He said: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if it causes it.

"I don't think I would regard this as being the prime cause of glue ear but another contributory factor."

"Jennifer's Ear" - the case of a five-year-old girl with glue ear dominated the 1992 election campaign for weeks.

It centred around Jennifer Bennett, who appeared in a Labour party political broadcast.

It was claimed she had waited almost a year for treatment for glue ear.

But there were conflicting stories and the little girl's parents got drawn into what became a deeply unpleasant and personalised political spat between the two parties.

Glue ear is usually treated with surgery.

A small hole is made to the eardrum, through which the glue is sucked out and a grommet or ventilation tube is inserted in the eardrum to keep the hole open for between nine and 12 months.

This stops the build-up of fluid again by allowing air into the middle ear space.

The grommet is naturally pushed out as the eardrum heals itself.

See also:

28 Jun 00 | Health
Hearing tests for all newborns
18 Jan 00 | Health
Hi-tech hearing aids free on NHS
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