Treating Childhood Hearing Loss
'Hears' Good News
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
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
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.
Devices to Treat Childhood Hearing Loss
Treatment for hearing loss depends on its cause. According to
William M. Luxford, MD, a specialist in otolaryngology and an associate of the
House Ear Clinic at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, most hearing
loss caused by problems with the outer or middle ear can be treated with
medicine (such as antibiotics to clear up an infection) or by cleaning out the
ear canals. Occasionally, surgery is required to repair damage to the eardrum
or the bones of the middle ear, or to place a tube through the eardrum to allow
fluid in the middle ear to dry up.