Hearing Loss In Children: Signs, Causes & Treatments

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Hearing loss can impact a person at any age from birth and it is important to diagnose and treat symptoms as early as possible in children. Early detection reduces stress for both children and parents and can greatly improve linguistics.

Discover more about hearing loss in children in our guide below, and get in touch with our hearing specialists across the south east if you think your child may be experiencing hearing loss or deafness. Call us at Horsham (01403 218863), Chichester (01243 774536) or Seaford (01323 899655).

What is hearing loss?

An adult or child who is not able to hear as well as someone with normal hearing is said to have a hearing loss. This is classed as having hearing thresholds of 25 dB or greater in both ears.

Hearing loss is graded as mild, moderate, severe or profound and can be:

  • Bilateral (both ears) or
  • Monaural (single sided), which results in difficulty hearing conversational speech or loud sounds

Currently, according to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately 466 million people worldwide with a disabling hearing loss and 34 million of these are children.

There are many different causes of hearing loss but more specifically with children, may result from hereditary or genetic causes, infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, reaction to toxic drugs or complications at birth.

Sadly, it is estimated that 60% of childhood hearing loss is preventable.

The signs of hearing loss in children

The signs of hearing loss are virtually the same across children and adults, regardless of whether the loss is conductive (mechanical aspect of hearing organ) or sensorineural (hearing nerve).

Lower hearing thresholds lead to misheard words or commands and the result is the same whether mild to severe, child or adult. Hearing loss of short duration is far more common among children due to the amount of infections they acquire. This is often down to poor toilet hygiene or social deprivation.

At what point should a child get a hearing test?

We are fortunate that all children born in the United Kingdom undergo postnatal screening for hearing loss. This sometimes results in a false positive, but whenever there is a positive result which may indicate a hearing loss, a repeat test is performed as soon as possible and if necessary early intervention and suggested treatments can be carried out without delay.

Many babies and young children can acquire hearing loss due to infection and it is important this is treated quickly to prevent it causing further damage. If you notice your child not responding to sounds or commands or acting differently to sounds or noises, it is important to seek advice and clinic assessment at the earliest opportunity.

If you have any concerns about your child’s hearing you should seek advice immediately.

Causes of hearing loss and deafness in children

The causes of hearing loss and deafness can be congenital or acquired.

Congenital causes

Congenital causes may lead to hearing loss being present at or acquired soon after birth. Hearing loss can be caused by hereditary and non-hereditary genetic factors or by certain complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including:

  • Maternal rubella, syphilis or certain other infections during pregnancy
  • Low birth weight
  • Birth asphyxia (a lack of oxygen at the time of birth)
  • Inappropriate use of particular drugs during pregnancy, such as aminoglycosides, cytotoxic drugs, antimalarial drugs, and diuretics
  • Severe jaundice in the neonatal period, which can damage the hearing nerve in a newborn infant

Acquired causes

Acquired causes can happen at any time and without warning. They include:

  • Infectious diseases including meningitis, measles and mumps
  • Collection of fluid in the ear (otitis media).
  • Inconclusive treatment can lead to exudative otitis media
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Use of certain medicines, such as those used in the treatment of neonatal infections, malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and cancers
  • Injury to the head or ear
  • Exposure to excessive noise, including occupational noise such as that from machinery and explosions
  • Recreational exposure to loud sounds such as that from use of personal audio devices at high volumes and for prolonged periods of time or regular attendance at concerts and sporting events
  • Wax or foreign bodies blocking the ear canal

Among children, chronic otitis media is a common cause of hearing loss which can be comprehensively treated with very good results. As an individual gets older, ageing, in particular due to degeneration of sensory cells, can also be a factor.

Impact of hearing loss in children

Functional impact

A major impact of hearing loss is on the individual’s ability to communicate with others. In children, their spoken language development is often delayed due to unaddressed hearing loss.

Untreated or unaddressed hearing loss and ear diseases have a significantly adverse effect on the child’s academic performance. They may experience increased rates of grade failure or lower assessment scores and require more educational assistance. Access to suitable assistance is important to optimise learning.

Social and emotional impact

We professionally know the impact of untreated hearing loss and communication on an adult and it is no different with children. In fact, many would argue the impact is even greater and exclusion from communication can lead to feelings, of loneliness, isolation, frustration, sadness, depression, low self worth and anxiety.

How can hearing loss impact language and learning in children?

Sometimes a hearing loss in a child is missed until they start to speak. After all, when we are learning to talk, we repeat what we hear. Very young children may pronounce words strangely or speak with an impediment.

Left untreated, hearing loss can have a detrimental impact on brain and cognitive development. If missed at a later school stage, academic results can be poor. We rely on our ears for good communication and understanding and if the brain is not receiving sufficient information, it will naturally not perform as well as it should.

Identification and management

Early detection and intervention are paramount in minimising the impact of hearing loss on a child’s development and educational achievements. In infants and young children with hearing loss, early identification and management through infant hearing screening programmes can improve the linguistic and educational outcomes for the child. Children with deafness should be given the opportunity to learn sign language along with their families.

It is important to access pre-school, school and occupational screening for ear diseases and hearing loss is an effective tool for early identification and management of hearing loss. If you know your child has missed out on one of these screening tests, it is important to request one.

Hearing loss treatment for children

Antibiotics (for infections)

Treatment depends on the cause and type of hearing loss. In children, the most common cause of hearing loss is an ear infection.

This can be in:

  • the outer ear canal known as Otitis Externa or
  • the middle ear cavity known as Otitis Media.

Infections are usually treated with a course of antibiotics and heal quickly and conclusively.

Grommets (for severe infections)

In some instances the bacterial infection is more severe and antibacterial treatment needs to be repeated, or the infection recurs several times. The treatment for this may require grommets to be fitted.

This is a minor operation whereby a small, short plastic tube is inserted into the tympanic membrane (ear drum). Grommets allow the ear to drain any excess fluid and relieves pressure and pain. It is common for grommets to come out on their own accord and the tympanic membrane to spontaneously heal with no further intervention required.

Hearing aids

If the hearing loss is not caused by an infection or is subject to damage to, or by an ill formed hearing nerve, the solution would be with something more mechanical and permanent, like a hearing aid.

If the hearing loss is more severe or profound, a cochlear implant may be considered. Whatever the reason is for diminished hearing, there are plenty of solutions.

Is hearing loss in children preventable or reversible?

There is no magic wand to prevent hearing loss and no panacea to reverse it either. However, a lot of childhood hearing losses are due to infection which affects the conductive element of the hearing organ.

If the infection is treated early, the conductive part can function normally and hearing can be restored. The important thing is not to panic as modern medical treatments are very effective and technological advances provide many solutions if electronic assistance is necessary.

What support is there for parents?

We are fortunate to have excellent paediatric facilities within the NHS system without lengthy wait times. There are also quite a few specialist private paediatric hearing organisations and charities around the country.

Prevention of childhood hearing loss

The WHO have collated a lot of information globally across all socio-economic platforms and their figures are quite startling:

In children under 15 years of age, 60% of hearing loss is attributable to preventable causes. This figure is higher in low- and middle-income countries (75%) as compared to high-income countries (49%).

Overall, preventable causes of childhood hearing loss include:

  • Immunising children against childhood diseases, including measles, meningitis, rubella and mumps
  • Immunising adolescent girls and women of reproductive age against rubella before pregnancy
  • Strengthening maternal and child health programmes, including promotion of safe childbirth
  • Screening of children for otitis media, followed by appropriate medical or surgical interventions
  • Avoiding the use of particular drugs which may be harmful to hearing, unless prescribed and monitored by a qualified physician
  • Referring infants at high risk, especially those with a family history of deafness or those born with low birth weight, birth asphyxia, jaundice or meningitis, for early assessment of hearing

Speak to our friendly team today

We are happy to give you advice and address any concerns you may have. Whether that is seeing your child ourselves or signposting you to the best qualified practitioner or relevant pathway. Please contact us for more information.