The sense of hearing is often taken for granted. There are no readily visible signs or symptoms for hearing loss in a young child. Approximately 5,000 children in the United States, however, are diagnosed with a significant hearing impairment every year. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, more than three million American children under the age of 18 years have varying degrees of hearing loss. As a parent or caretaker, recognizing and understanding hearing impairment is essential to your child’s development. And, because you spend the most time with your child, you will most likely be the first to suspect any hearing loss.
The ear is composed of three parts
- The outer ear consists of the soft, fleshy area that is readily visible to the naked eye and includes the auricle (collector of sound energy), the ear canal and the earlobe.
- The middle ear is a small area consisting of three small bones, the malleus, stapes and incus, which amplify and conduct the sound energy they receive through the outer ear.
- The inner ear is a much more intricate area composed of bony chambers and passageways and is connected to the nerves of the ear and skull.
Types of Hearing Impairment
Types of hearing impairment can be described by the area of the ear that is affected, whether the loss is temporary or permanent, and if the child is born with the hearing loss (congenital) or acquires a hearing impairment after birth. Congenital hearing loss is attributed to a defect that the child is born with, either a through an inherited genetic defect or the result of a prenatally acquired condition. Hearing loss acquired after birth is most common, however, accounting for more than 75 percent of all cases of hearing impairment in children.
- Conductive Hearing Impairment:
Hearing impairment that occurs in the middle ear is called a conductive hearing loss and is usually temporary. Ear wax buildup, chronic or recurrent middle ear infections such as otitis media, or biological malformations are common causes of conductive hearing loss. Many children with these types of temporary hearing losses can regain their hearing through medical treatment or minor surgery.
- Sensori-neural Hearing Impairment:
Hearing impairment that occurs in the inner ear is called sensori-neural hearing loss because it involves nerve damage. This type of damage is usually permanent and may worsen over time. The most frequent cause of sensori-neural hearing loss is genetic/hereditary in nature.
Common Causes of Hearing Impairment:
The reason for a child’s hearing loss may not always be easy to identify. There are many possible implications for a child’s hearing impairment. If the hearing impairment is congenital, the cause may be different than if the hearing loss is acquired after birth. Common causes of congenital hearing loss include:
- inherited syndromes (Treacher-Collins, Goldenhar’s, Alpert’s)
- nonsyndromic inherited hearing loss
- drug exposure in utero
- prenatal infections
Common causes of hearing loss acquired after birth include:
- recurrent ear infections with fluid present (otitis media)
- infections (meningitis, mumps, measles, chicken pox, hepatitis, influenza)
- hyperbilirubinemia (jaundice)
- drugs (antibiotics given via needle through vein)
- noise exposure
- head trauma
- birth complications
Risks Factors for Hearing Loss
If you think your child may be at risk for a hearing impairment, the following table provides a list of potential risk factors that may apply to you, your baby, or your family. The information found in the table was resourced from the American Academy of Otolarynology, and can be found along with other education information related to disorders of the ear, nose and throat at hearing loss.
Assessment and Treatment:
If you think your child may be at risk for a hearing loss, or is exhibited some of the indicators for hearing loss, speak to your doctor about having your child’s hearing tested, preferably by a pediatric audiologist. There are many options to test your child’s hearing ability at any age. And, if no hearing loss is detected, the test will not have harmed your child in any way. If you need help locating a pediatric ear-nose-and-throat doctor or a pediatric audiologist, The American Speech Language and Hearing Association (1-800-638-8255) offers physician referral services for qualified speech and hearing health professionals in your area.
If your child does have any hearing impairment, however, early detection and treatment are the best ways to maximize your child’s hearing and speech development. Hearing can be improved with the use of hearing aids or other assistive devices. Additionally, appropriate speech and language therapy is available, as well as, specific educational programs designed for children with hearing impairments. The nonprofit organization Beginnings provides information and assistance to parents of children with hearing impairments including resources and support, treatment options, financial and government concerns, and educational opportunities.
Finally, it is important to remember that your child is still a normal, active child who will desire interaction with other children, want to learn and play, and be accepted.