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Severe Hearing Loss: Its Causes and Treatment

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 2 to 3 children out of 1,000 in the U.S. are born deaf or hearing impaired. Most states offer newborn hearing screening, and if there is a hearing problem, an other test is performed within a few weeks. Early intervention is key. 

Any kind of early hearing loss can be a serious problem. It can undermine the foundation of language development, which experts believe is built during the early months and years of life. If undiagnosed and untreated, pediatric hearing impairment can result in major language development problems.

But it can be very hard to identify hearing loss until signs of speech and developmental delays show up -- many hearing impairments aren't identified until the child is 2. However, a variety of techniques exist to test hearing in children, regardless of the child's age. 

If you suspect that your child may have a hearing problem, talk to your pediatrician. Get your child's hearing evaluated as soon as possible. If your child has been diagnosed with a hearing impairment, seek help right away. Experts agree that the earlier children with hearing loss get help, the better their chances of reaching their full learning and developmental potential.

What Are the Causes of Hearing Loss in Children?

Children can experience hearing loss due to a variety of causes, including:
  • Otitis media. This middle ear infection occurs often in young children because their Eustachian tubes (the tubes that connect the middle ear to the nose) are not fully developed. Fluid builds up behind the eardrum and can become infected. Even if there is no pain or infection, the fluid can impair hearing if it stays there, at least temporarily. In severe and chronic cases, otitis media can lead to permanent hearing loss.
  • Congenital factors. Some children are born with hearing problems -- either as a result of genetic factors or because of prenatal or childbirth problems. More than half of all congenital hearing problems in children are due to genetics. Hearing loss can also result when a pregnant woman develops certain conditions such as diabetes or toxemia. Premature birth also raises a child's risk for hearing problems.
  • Acquired hearing loss. A variety of conditions can trigger hearing problems in young children, including illnesses such as meningitis, encephalitis, measles, chickenpox, some forms of genetic hearing loss, and influenza. Head injuries, very loud noises, and certain medications can also lead to acquired hearing loss.

Signs and Symptoms of Hearing Loss in Children

As a parent, you are likely to be the first person to notice hearing problems in your child. Some early indications of a hearing problem include:
  • Not reacting to loud noises
  • Not responding to your voice
  • Making simple sounds that eventually taper off
A child with otitis media may also:
  • Pull or rub an ear
  • Be constantly irritable for no apparent reason
  • Become listless or inattentive
  • Not understand directions
  • Often ask for the television or radio to be louder
  • Have a fever
  • Have ear pain
Check with your child's doctor if you have any reason to suspect that your child has hearing problems. 

Diagnosing Hearing Loss in Children

Many hospitals routinely screen newborns for hearing impairment. Other hospitals only screen infants who are at risk for hearing impairment, such as those with a genetic tendency for deafness. A number of states have laws that require early hearing screening for all infants. Check with your pediatrician or hospital to find if your child has received a hearing test. If not, see how you can get one.

Treatment Options for Children With Hearing Loss

Treatment options for children with hearing loss depend upon the condition and degree of hearing impairment.
The most common types of treatment for otitis media include:
  • Watchful waiting. Because the condition often clears on its own, sometimes the initial treatment for otitis media is simply to monitor the child for any changes.
  • Medications. Your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics or other medications for your child.
  • Ear tubes. If the problem persists and seems to be affecting your child's hearing, your pediatrician may suggest that your child receive ear tubes. These allow fluid to drain and can help prevent infection. If your pediatrician thinks your child needs ear tubes, he or she will refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, also known as an otolaryngologist. Inserting ear tubes is a minor outpatient surgical procedure, but your child will have to have a general anesthetic in the hospital.
Other types of treatment for children with hearing loss include:
  • Hearing aids. Children with hearing loss can begin to use hearing aids when they are as young as 1 month old. Your hearing specialist will help ensure that your child is fitted with the most appropriate device.
  • Implants. Many children and adults are now getting cochlear implants, electronic devices that help with hearing. These are usually used for children with serious hearing problems, for whom hearing aids have not been effective.
  • Other hearing devices. There are a number of other devices that can help children with hearing loss with communication and learning. Ask a hearing specialist about other devices that might be appropriate for your child.
Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with hearing loss are entitled to early intervention and appropriate education from the time they are born and throughout their school years. Early intervention can help your child learn to communicate through speech or signing, or a combination of both.
If your child needs ongoing support and intervention in school, work with your school administrators to make sure he or she gets the help that's needed. As your child matures, it's likely that his or her education program will need readjusting. So you will need to stay involved to ensure your child gets the help he or she needs.
Parental support and effective early intervention have been shown to increase the chances that children with hearing loss will learn to communicate and to participate in school and other activities. This is especially true in children who use cochlear implants. Children with cochlear implants who have involved parents frequently show much better performance than children with less involved parents. The same is true for children who use hearing aids.
Here are a few things you can do to help your child -- and yourself:
  • Educate yourself. Web sites, as well as government and nonprofit organizations, can help you keep up with the latest developments and research.
  • Communicate. Seek out support groups and online chat communities for parents of children with hearing loss. These groups can provide information and a sense of community.
  • Stay in touch with your child. According to child development experts, some children with hearing loss feel socially isolated as a result of their hearing impairment. However, early intervention and the use of assistive technologies can reduce the chances of social isolation in children.
  • Take care of yourself and your other relationships. Getting help for children with hearing loss can be an all-consuming task. But don't neglect your own well-being or your other relationships. Make time for each other, stay in touch with friends, and pursue the activities you enjoy.