Hearing problems, hearing impairment and being deaf can affect many children and adults either temporarily (e.g. fluctuating hearing loss in children) or permanently. Hearing loss in childhood can severely delay speech, language, and literacy development, and most adults will experience deterioration in their hearing as they get older. Thankfully, hearing aid technology has moved a long way in recent years. Digital hearing aids are now much smaller, are able to pick up less background noise, and tune in more specifically to speech frequencies. Unfortunately, amplification of sound will never replace normal hearing. The development of cochlear implants however, has provided many profoundly deaf children and some adults with a hearing system that allows them to hear speech more clearly as well as develop their own speech skills. Neonatal screening programs are also leading to early detection of hearing loss and allowing parents and professionals to prepare earlier for the deaf child and put appropriate systems in place to facilitate communication and learning.
Hearing impairment can occur for several reasons:
Some babies are born deaf, usually due to genetic reasons, or some form of trauma during the pregnancy or birth
Once hearing impairment has occurred it may be more likely to affect high or low frequency sounds, or both, depending on the nature and extent of the impairment. Hearing impairment can affect the outer and middle ear (conductive loss) or the inner ear (sensori-neural loss).
Conductive hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a problem occurring at the outer and/or middle ear, and hinders the sound from reaching the inner ear. Some conductive hearing loss is temporary and treatable. With the outer ear, anything that blocks the auditory canal (wax, foreign object, swelling from infection etc), can impede sound.
Conductive hearing loss is common among children with around 6% of children experiencing at least one episode, mainly due to otitis media (”glue ear”) of the middle ear. For some children the problem persists or recurs and this may affect speech and language development. Conductive loss can be caused by infections, a perforated eardrum, wax blockage, damage to the ear or ossicles (bones on in the middle), and disease. Oto-sclerosis is another disorder that can cause a conductive hearing loss and is caused by abnormal bone growth within the middle ear (although it is a rare disorder).
Otitis Media (Glue Ear)
Otitis media or “glue ear” is the most common cause of conductive hearing loss in children and is a general term to describe a number of conditions affecting the middle ear. Infections can cause a lot of pain, the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to rupture, and fever. The inflammation of the middle ear caused by this infection can affect the conduction of sound. Otitis media with effusion is an infection of the middle ear which also causes a collection of fluid in the middle ear space. If this fluid remains for a period it can become thick and glue like (hence the term “glue ear”), hindering the middle ear to effectively carry sound.
Otitis media can be a long term infection and can keep recurring over the early years of a child’s life. It is important to be aware that your child’s hearing could be impaired and you may not have any obvious signs. If you have concerns ask your doctor for a referral to an audiologist or Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Specialist, because prolonged deafness in the early years can cause a delay in speech and language development.
Antibiotics are generally used to clear an otitis media infection, or if the infection persists a tympanostomy tube (often called a “grommet”) may be inserted to drain the fluid and equalize the pressure in the middle ear. Grommet’s can be highly effective and generally just fall out of the ear after several weeks or months. Parents have often noticed huge changes in their child’s communication and behaviour following the fitting of grommets.
Sensory-neural hearing loss
Sensory-neural loss is a result of damage to the inner ear (cochlear) and/or the auditory pathways that carry sound to the brain. There are a number of factors that are responsible for sensorineural loss including injury, exposure to loud noise, disease, certain ototoxic drugs, meningitis, tumours, stroke and genetic causes. The most common cause of sensory-neural loss is by presbycusis which may be responsible for up to 90% of hearing impairment amongst adults. Presbycusis is an age related hearing loss and describes what happens to most people as they get older. As we age the nerve cells in our cochlear die and get damaged and we see decline in our hearing ability. With children, around 50% of cases of sensory-neural loss will have a genetic cause, and loss may also be caused by birth prematurity or infection during pregnancy. Sensory-neural loss is most likely to affect our ability to hear higher frequency sounds. Inner ear hearing problems may also include recruitment, which makes the ear more sensitive to louder sounds, so although there is a hearing loss, a sound level slightly above the level of hearing can be painful.
Tinnitus can also accompany hearing impairment in later life, with a constant or intermittent sound in one, or both ears. This sound can be very distracting and unpleasant, especially when trying to get to sleep. There are a number of different devices that can help with tinnitus such as devices that produce soothing background noise to help with sleep or when trying to concentrate in a very quiet environment. Some people have also found complementary therapies such as acupuncture may help. It is always best to discuss any treatments or therapies with your doctor before embarking on them.
Mixed hearing loss
A mixed hearing loss is less common, but it is possible for an individual to have both a conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, a mixed hearing loss.
If there is a family history of hearing impairment, a diagnosed syndrome associated with hearing impairment, or you have had certain infections during pregnancy it is important to have your child’s hearing checked early. The same is true if the baby was premature or has suffered difficulties during birth. In the first 2 years of life it is important to be aware that a hearing difficulty can arise from meningitis, head trauma, certain ototoxic medications, and otitis media. Babies should display certain behaviours if their hearing is working . Young babies should:
Older children may display a number of other signs that they have a hearing impairment:
Treatment for Deafness
There are a number of ways to treat deafness and hard of hearing. To read more about treatment for deafness, hearing aids and cochlear implants, click here to go to our Hearing Treatment section.
Top 10 tips to help communication with a deaf or hearing impaired child
There are many things we, and those around us, can do to make life easier when hearing impairment occurs: