Early ear infections could lead to later hearing loss

Contributed by | Friday, December 19th, 2014

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If you’re a parent, you’ve probably dealt with a few nasty ear infections with your children. Ear infections aren’t pleasant to deal with; there's the pain and discomfort it causes your child, as well as the stress it places on you. Loss of sleep, constant crying and screaming, that feeling of helplessness…whew! You breathe a major sigh of relief when it’s finally all over and your little one is back to his or her bright chipper self.

But new research suggests the complications from those earaches don’t necessarily end when the infection clears up. Researchers at Newcastle University in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England have evidence that ear infections in babies under the age of one could have an impact on hearing loss later in life.

early ear infections
According to new research, chronic ear 
infections in infants could lead to hearing loss
later in life. Talk to your pediatrician today if
your child suffers from constant ear infections.

The researchers launched a research initiative in 1947 called “The Newcastle Thousand Families Study,” which studied 1,142 babies born that year, continuing through the present day. The original subjects are now in their 60s, and a recent hearing test indicated those who suffered from multiple episodes of ear infections, tonsillitis, bronchitis or other respiratory issues during their first 12 months of life were more likely to have hearing loss than those who didn’t. The trend held true even when other common hearing loss factors, such as noisy environments, ear operations, gender and socio-economic backgrounds were taken into consideration.

The study was funded by U.K. hearing advocation organization Action on Hearing Loss. Dr. Ralph Holme, head of biomedical research for AHL, said the findings indicate hearing loss is caused by more than just the common environmental factors everyone associates with hearing problems.

“Illnesses in childhood could have long-lasting consequences for hearing in later life,” Holme said in a statement. “Hearing loss can have a big impact on a person’s life, isolating them from family and friends, and has been linked to other health conditions like depression and dementia. These findings remind us that it’s never too early to think about protecting your hearing.”

Much more study is needed before researchers can say for certain that the link between early childhood infections and late onset hearing loss is a concrete one, but the idea isn’t farfetched. Other medical conditions such as diabetes, heart circulation and thyroid problems are also suspected of contributing to hearing loss.

An ear infection occurs when the eustachian tube, which connects the upper throat to the middle ear, fails to drain properly. When fluid backs up, so do bacteria. Children’s eustachian tubes are smaller and more level than those in adults, making it more difficult for fluid to drain, consequently making them more prone to ear infections. Additionally, a child’s immune system isn’t fully developed, making it tough to fight off infections once they’ve already contracted one.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) is currently researching ear infections in children, their consequences and how to prevent them. In the meantime, the best possible solution to avoiding the potential effects of ear infections is to prevent an infection from occurring. The NIDCD suggests a few ways to keep ear infections at bay.

  • Take your child to receive a flu vaccine each year.
  • Give your child the PCV13 vaccine, which is shown to reduce the number of ear infections a child has and is more effective than the previous PCV7 vaccine.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid exposing your child to cigarette smoke.
  • Don’t put your baby to sleep with a bottle.
  • Keep sick children away from each other.

Most ear infections clear up within seven to 10 days when treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, however, more serious complications can arise. Be watchful of  your child and take notice if he or she starts exhibiting symptoms of an earache, such as:

  • Persistent crying
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Continual pulling or pointing at the ears
  • Fever
  • Excess fluid draining from the ear
  • Balance issues 
  • Difficulty responding to softer or quieter sounds.

The occasional ear infection is common in children, so don’t panic if your child is currently battling one. But if your child suffers from them frequently, consult your pediatrician or hearing health practitioner to see if something can be done. Remember that respiratory illnesses can also have an effect on your child’s hearing capability. Frequent infections could be an indicator of an underlying problem and if that’s the case, you want to confront the issue as soon as possible. Early detection of a hearing condition can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of treatment, and may save your child further difficulty down the road.

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