Can Chronic Ear Infections Lead to Speech Delays in Kids?
Childhood ear infections are painful and stressful.
Unfortunately, this condition is common with kids because young children can build up fluid in their middle ear due to the anatomy of their eustachian tubes, which connect the ears to the nose. Children have shorter and narrower eustachian tubes, which make it easier for them to get blocked.
Now, new research suggests that frequent infections can adversely affect language development.
This happens when fluid build-up behind the eardrum leads to temporary hearing loss, leading to delays in language development and deficits in auditory processing years later. The study was published in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology.
This does not surprise Chrisanda Sanchez, Au.D., FAAA, an audiologist at the University of Miami Health System who specializes in pediatrics and is the interim director of the Children’s Hearing Program at the UHealth Ear Institute. She and her colleagues see many children with speech delays, and part of their job is to tease out the cause of those delays.
It’s not unusual, she says, “to find that there is some hearing loss because of recurring ear infections. For those children, it’s like walking around with earplugs.”
Any hearing loss can affect language development because hearing distinct sounds is vital for developing vocabulary and comprehension.
As Dr. Sanchez puts it, “The brain needs normal input in order to deliver normal output. If you don’t have access to clear hearing, you won’t be able to speak and understand clearly either.”
The 2023 study looked into the auditory processing and language development of 117 kids. These children were between the ages of 5 and 10, including those with and without a history of chronic ear infections.
Investigators found that those who had had several ear infections before turning 3 had difficulty detecting changes in sound. This points to a deficit in the brain’s auditory processing center. What’s more, they also had problems matching similar-sounding words.
Hearing is essential for young children because those first years are vital to acquiring language.
That said, she tells parents that hearing loss due to infection is usually not permanent. Language delays can be addressed with the intervention of the fluid and the proper therapy.
Early intervention makes a big difference, and the earlier the better. Sometimes a child just needs a little help.Chrisanda Sanchez, Au.D., FAAA
For concerned parents, Dr. Sanchez has several suggestions:
- Be alert to the symptoms of an ear infection. These include trouble hearing, pulling at the ears, fussiness, fever, fluid draining from the ear and problems with balance. Infections and fluid often follow a cold and sometimes are asymptomatic. So, be proactive.
- Visit your pediatrician promptly if you notice these symptoms or are in doubt. If an ear infection is diagnosed, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic for your child.
- Monitor every infection and keep track of recurring ones. “You want to treat it aggressively to prevent serious outcomes,” she says.
- Keep track of speech and language milestones. If your child doesn’t meet these milestones or is behind his or her peers in talking, check his or her hearing.
“If something doesn’t sound quite right or your child is not as expressive as his peers, you want to find out why. It’s better to be safe and get their hearing checked,” Dr. Sanchez says. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has great resources for families to better understand Communication Milestones by age.
- Ask your pediatrician to check your child’s hearing. Screenings are mandated for newborns and kids entering kindergarten. But a lot can happen between those two milestones. If your pediatrician doesn’t have the proper equipment, ask for a referral to a pediatric audiologist.
If you want to schedule a hearing test for your child, call the Children’s Hearing Program at 305-243-1110.