Ear Infections and Hearing Loss – Is There A Connection?

Ear infections and hearing loss

As any parent knows, having a sick child is no fun … for the child OR the parent. Making matters worse is the inability of some children, especially very young ones, to be able to accurately describe their symptoms. Fortunately, help is on the way in the form of new technology, at least in the area of ear infections.

Common symptoms of ear infections

A middle ear infection, otherwise known as otitis media, is the most common cause of ear pain. This is not the only symptom, however, and some of the others may not be so obvious. Common ear infection symptoms include:

  • Ear discomfort or pain
  • Tugging on the ears (a silent indicator most often seen in infants or toddlers)
  • Drainage from one or both ears
  • Irritability and/or decreased appetite
  • Hearing loss unexplained by anything else (typically experienced as muffled sound)
  • An overall feeling of illness with or without a fever
  • Fluid in the ear, creating a sense of fullness or pressure

Diagnosis and treatment of ear infections

As you can see from the list above, some symptoms are more easily detected than others. A school-age child would likely be able to verbalize their symptoms to their parent. On the other hand, an infant or toddler would be less able to do so. That often makes a diagnosis of otitis media a little tricky.

Many times, ear infections go away on their own, without requiring treatment. Other times, fluid in the ear persists long enough to cause a ruptured or torn eardrum. This can also heal on its own but can be extremely painful to withstand. Most often, parents rely on diagnosis by their child’s pediatrician. Treatment may include medications to manage the symptoms or the use of an antibiotic.

Ear infections and hearing loss

Left untreated, ear infections can cause temporary conductive hearing loss because the fluid buildup blocks sound. While this may not seem too serious, it could have a negative impact on speech and language development in very young children.

Some children have multiple ear infections in a relatively short period of time, known as chronic otitis media. When this happens, there is a greater likelihood of conductive hearing loss, impaired speech and language, and auditory processing disorders. Fortunately, permanent hearing loss is rare, but it certainly isn’t something to rule out.

New technology coming to help parents

As a parent, you likely appreciate any of the tools at your disposal that can help you figure out what’s wrong with your child when they appear sick. Often, parents seek the advice of a friend or someone who’s been through the parenting experience before. Still, others use the internet as a source of information. While this never takes the place of diagnosis and treatment by a qualified doctor, this can provide valuable clues that will make diagnosis easier.

Soon, there will be another tool you can add to your armory – a smartphone app designed to detect ear infections. Created by researchers at the University of Washington, this app works with two simple tools – a smartphone and a paper funnel. The system works by detecting fluid behind the eardrum, which would alert you to the possibility of an infection. While not yet available to the public, this app has the potential to make it easier for parents to determine the cause of their child’s symptoms, especially if they’re unable to articulate it themselves. And, it will act as an early screening device to help parents know when to take their children to the doctor.

Hearing changes in children

The ability to hear is a valuable sense, and not one to be taken lightly. Hearing loss at any age can be challenging to deal with, but especially in young children. In the early years, hearing plays a large role in the child’s learning and development, setting the stage for later years. If you notice any hearing changes at all, schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician or a hearing professional for a thorough hearing evaluation.

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