Middle Ear Infections

Repeated middle ear infections are the most common cause of hearing loss in children. A middle ear infection is called otitis media with the main symptom being inflammation behind the eardrum; usually there’s a buildup of fluid as well.

What To Expect

Otitis media can be mild or severe. In its mildest form, it’s nothing but a little increase in fluid behind the eardrum. There’s no fever or pain, but there might be a small and temporary decrease in hearing that corrects itself when the fluid is gone.

At the other end of the spectrum are repeated severe infections, where the fluid becomes thick and sticky. When this happens, one possible result is permanent hearing loss.

Otitis media is the most common complaint of young children and babies. Fully three-quarters of children will have otitis media at least once during their first three years. About half of these children will have at least three ear infections before they’re three.

The Kid Connection

Otitis media is much more common in young children than it is in older kids and adults. This is because the Eustachian tube—which is a connection between the back of the throat and the middle ear—is nearly horizontal in young children. This makes young children very susceptible to middle ear infections. However, as a child grows up the angle and size of the Eustachian tubes change, the child becomes less prone to developing ear infections.

Otitis Media and Hearing

In some cases, otitis media can cause permanent hearing loss by damaging a part of the ear. The middle ear contains three tiny bones that transmit sound vibrations from the eardrum into the inner ear. When there’s fluid behind the eardrum, the whole process doesn’t work as well, and the result is mild and temporary hearing loss.

Repeated infections can damage these little bones, the eardrum itself, or even the auditory nerve. Permanent hearing loss can result. This can have serious consequences for a child’s speech and language development.

However, it doesn’t take permanent hearing loss for otitis media to have an impact on a young child’s development. Even otitis media without infection can be a problem because the overall lack of symptoms may prevent parents from being aware that their child isn’t hearing everything. At the same time, the child may be missing critical language learning experiences.

Noting Symptoms

Even is your child isn’t complaining about an earache, you can watch for symptoms that may indicate a problem. These include wanting the TV turned up loud, lack of attentiveness, irritability, pulling at or rubbing the ears, and having trouble following directions. If you notice any of these things, suspect otitis media and take your child to the doctor. An ear infection needs attention right away.

If your child has recurring ear infections, your doctor may recommend shunts to prevent the buildup of fluid. He also may suggest that you consult an audiologist to check on the amount of hearing loss, and with a speech and language pathologist to evaluate your child’s language skills.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if you think your child has a hearing problem. As a parent, you know your child the best, and are the best judge of whether something is wrong.