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Health & Pregnancy

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Treating Childhood Hearing Loss

'Hears' Good News
WebMD Feature

Nov. 5, 2001 -- We may think of vision as our most important sense, and the worst one to lose. But hearing loss, especially early in life, can be far more devastating because it can profoundly affect a child's speech and language ability. Fortunately, new technology allows us not only to diagnose hearing loss in very young children, but also to treat it and prevent its devastating consequences.

Causes of Childhood Hearing Loss

The ear is made up of three sections: the outer, middle, and inner ear. Outer and middle ear problems can result in conductive hearing loss -- difficulty with the transmission of sound through the ear and into the brain. Problems with the inner ear can result in neural hearing loss, where the auditory nerves responsible for hearing are damaged. Although much more rare, this second type of hearing loss is more difficult to treat.

There are many identified causes of hearing loss in infants and children, including specific conditions (some of which are inherited), infections, and injury. But up to 40% of hearing loss in infants is unexplained.

Environmental noise is another serious threat to children's hearing. According to a study published in the July 2001 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, more than 5 million American children aged 6 to 19 have some degree of hearing loss caused by loud noise.

Patricia Chase, PhD, a pediatric audiologist at East Tennessee State University's College of Public and Allied Health in Johnson City, TN, tells WebMD that she was surprised by these figures. "We often think of noise damage from work environments," she says. "With children, and adults too, you also have to take into account recreational noise, such as jet skis, boating, hunting... motorcycles, chain saws, weed eaters, lawnmowers ... and of course, music."

Recognizing and Diagnosing Childhood Hearing Loss

Early diagnosis is the key to minimizing damage in young children. With technological advances, we are now able to test for hearing loss in babies only a few hours old. "We can test hearing on very young and very uncooperative children," Robert W. Keith, PhD, professor of audiology and director of audiology at University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Ohio, tells WebMD. "[You] shouldn't wait if [you] are concerned that [your] child isn't responding to sound or speech, and language development is not developing according to normal landmarks. The house is on fire; you've got to get a fire truck there. You shouldn't wait, you're going to lose that critical language time."

According to Chase, signs that your infant might have hearing problems include not responding to sudden, loud noises and not looking around for Mother's voice when she talks out of the infant's range of vision.

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