One of the most common misconceptions about hearing loss is that it only impacts older adults. Hearing loss is the third most pervasive medical condition people experience today. It impacts people of all ages and can be present at birth or develop at any age. Pediatric hearing loss refers to impaired hearing experienced by children. This can be temporary or chronic depending on the cause. Hearing loss in children can cause speech delays so intervening early and seeking treatment is an important way to prioritize healthy development.
Causes of Childhood Hearing Loss
There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. These types of hearing loss have different causes and treatment options.
- Conductive: this type of hearing loss happens in the outer or middle ear. This prevents sound from being fully absorbed and traveling through the ear canal to the inner ear, creating hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is temporary and is typically treated with medications. Common causes include:
- Colds, allergies, ear infections produce a buildup of fluid in the ear
- Ear wax accumulation in the ear canal
- Foreign objects that get stuck in the ear or damage the ear
- Noncancerous tumors, bone growths
- Sensorineural: occurs in the inner ear and results from damage to the hair cells in the cochlea. These hair cells play a critical role in how we hear – they convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals which are sent to the brain. The brain then interprets and assigns meaning to these signals which are how we understand what we hear. Sensorineural hearing loss can be present at birth (not as common) or can be acquired after birth. Common causes include:
- genetics, premature birth, low birth weight are factors that can contribute to hearing loss at birth
- Acquired sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by exposure to loud noise, chronic ear infections, and head injuries.
This type of hearing loss is permanent because hair cells in the inner ear do not regenerate unlike other types of cells we have. There are also no medical treatments that can replenish these cells. Fortunately, there are effective ways sensorineural hearing loss can be treated.
Signs of Pediatric Hearing Loss
Hearing loss reduces the capacity to detect and process speech as well as sound. This produces a range of symptoms including the following:
- For newborns and infants:
- Doesn’t get startled by loud or sudden sounds
- Doesn’t respond to your voice or being spoken to
- No response to toys that make a noise
- Doesn’t turn their head towards sounds
- Making less babbling noises or doesn’t try to repeat simple sounds
- Doesn’t respond to their name
- For toddlers and older children:
- Experiences speech or language delays
- Difficulty articulating thoughts
- Increases the volume on electronic devices
- Has learning challenges at school
- Expresses experiencing ear pain and earaches
- Trouble hearing especially with background noise
It is imperative to be aware of these signs and intervene as soon as you notice any hearing challenges your child may be experiencing.
Diagnosing and Treating Pediatric Hearing Loss
There are a few diagnostic tools that are used to identify pediatric hearing loss which largely depends on the child’s age. Pediatric audiologists can use the following tests:
- visual reinforcement audiometry (VRA) to assess hearing among infants as young as 6 months. This involves playing sounds and seeing if the infant turns their head towards the sound.
- for toddlers and preschoolers: hearing healthcare providers may use a strategy referred to as play audiometry. This turns the hearing test into a game where the child is asked to perform a task when they hear a sound (clap your hand when you hear the sound for example).
- older kids: similar to adult hearing tests, school-aged kids can have their hearing tested by responding to sounds that are played through headphones they are wearing. They are asked to indicate which sounds they can hear as this information is being collected.
Depending on the degree of hearing impairment, treatment options could include hearing aids, cochlear implants, assistive listening devices, and speech therapy.
If you recognize any of the symptoms listed, it is important to schedule an appointment with your child’s primary care physician. After having their ears and symptoms assessed, your family doctor can refer you to a pediatric audiologist who can conduct further testing.