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Causes of Hearing Loss in Children

by Carly Magill, AUD, CCC-A

Carly Magill
Carly Magill, AUD, CCC-A

Hearing loss in a child is not always noticeable right away. A child who does not have normal hearing may be delayed in speech and language development. Without assistance to correct hearing loss, the auditory cortex of the brain may be permanently impacted. That’s why hearing loss detection is important, particularly at a young age. As a parent, you are in the best position to detect hearing loss and have your child evaluated.

The two main types of hearing loss in children are congenital and acquired. Congenital means the child is born with the hearing loss. This may be an inherited trait, or due to something that happened during pregnancy or delivery. In Pennsylvania, infants are screened at birth to detect and address congenital hearing loss.

An acquired hearing loss, one that appears after birth, is much more common. Exposure to extremely loud noises is a leading cause of acquired hearing loss. A good rule with electronic sound devices, particularly those worn in the ear, is:  if you can hear it while your child is wearing it, it is too loud. Noises that cause you or your child to cover your ears, such as the sound system at a concert or movie theater, are too loud. If you can’t avoid the loud noise, bring ear plugs or ear covers for protection. 

Children commonly develop otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear/ear infection), another cause of acquired hearing loss that can be temporary or permanent. The small size and shape of the passage from the middle ear to the back of the throat in children is easily blocked and can retain fluid, which can lead to infection.

Ear infections commonly cause fever and ear pain, which results in a trip to the doctor, but that does not always occur. If there are no symptoms, a child’s hearing could be impaired without any reason for the parent to be suspicious.

Other causes of acquired hearing loss include damage by a foreign body, injury, or a disease, such as meningitis, the measles, or chicken pox.

Because loss of hearing can slow speech and language development, your child’s doctor looks for certain milestones, such as babbling at around six months, forming words at around one year, and then linking words together to make sentences by age two. Children are also screened for hearing loss prior to kindergarten and then again in grades 1,3,5,7 and 11. Signs you should watch for between these screening tests include:

  • Not paying attention
  • Requesting louder volumes on television or electronic devices
  • Unexplained irritability
  • Pulling at the ears, and
  • Misunderstanding directions.

If you suspect a hearing problem, you should have your child’s hearing checked by an audiologist. An audiologist is a healthcare professional who is specially trained to evaluate, diagnose, treat and manage hearing loss, tinnitus and balance disorders in all individuals from newborns to the elderly.

The audiologist uses an age-appropriate test to evaluate your child’s hearing and records the sound frequencies your child can hear, from the lowest tones to the highest, on a graph called an audiogram. This graph helps determine the most appropriate treatment to improve your child’s hearing. It may be a hearing aid, a cochlear implant or some other sort of supportive device or equipment.

If a hearing aid is needed, the audiologist helps you choose the right device, assures that it fits properly, and teaches proper cleaning and operation. The audiologist also conducts annual check-ups to assure the device continues to fit well as the child grows. In cases where a surgical solution, such as tubes in the ear or a cochlear device, are needed, the audiologist makes a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Dr. Carly Magill is an audiologist with UPMC Susquehanna.