Four common causes of temporary hearing loss in children – and what to do when they occur

Contributed by | Monday, February 15th, 2016

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There’s no doubt about it – parenting is not for the faint of heart. One moment your child is hearing perfectly well and the next? He may be fussy and feverish or complaining that things “sound funny.” Is it time to call the doctor? Maybe. Here are four of the most common causes of temporary hearing loss in children and what you should do if they occur.

Ear infection

child holding her hand over her ear
Tugging, touching or pulling
on the ear is a symptom of
ear infection. 

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), five of every six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday. In fact, ear infections are the most common reason parents take their child to the doctor. The good news is, although they can cause your child a lot of discomfort and hearing loss, ear infections usually clear up on their own without any permanent damage to the hearing.

The most common type of ear infection among children is known as acute otitis media (AOM). This occurs when parts of the middle ear become infected and swollen, trapping fluid behind the eardrum. If your child isn’t old enough to tell you they have an earache, look for these symptoms:

  • Tugging or pulling on the ear
  • Crying and or general fussiness
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fever
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Balance issues
  • Problems hearing or responding

What to do

Ear infections are usually caused by bacteria from your child’s cold or sore throat that spread to the middle ear. Children age two and older may benefit from treatment at home, which includes:

  • Pain relievers, given according to direction and especially at bedtime to help your child get restful sleep
  • Warm compress, such as a washcloth rinsed in warm water
  • Lots of rest to help the body fight infection

Even though most ear infections clear on their own without antibiotics, you’ll want to schedule a visit to the doctor for an evaluation if your child’s condition doesn’t improve after a few days. Always consult your physician if your child is younger than two.

Earwax

It’s hard to believe, but earwax serves a purpose. Not only does its waterproof properties help protect the eardrum and ear canal, it also traps dirt, dust and other particles from entering the ear and irritating the eardrum. Here’s another shocker: the body produces just as much earwax as it needs and knows how to get rid of the excess. It’s okay to use a washcloth to gently clean your child’s ear, but please don’t use cotton swabs or any other object to reach any accumulation you might see in the ear canal. These objects can actually push the earwax further into the ear canal and/or puncture the eardrum, causing more harm than good.

What to do

If your child complains he can’t hear well or sound is muffled, he may have an excess of earwax which is blocking the ear canal and preventing him from hearing well. In that case, make an appointment with your family doctor. If the earwax is causing pain or interfering with your child’s hearing, she will be able to remove the excess safely in just a few minutes. If it’s not earwax, it might be another type of obstruction.

Other obstructions

By their very nature, kids are curious. As infants, they stick everything they can find into their mouths. When they get a little older, they start discovering other body orifices to explore and may curiously try to see if something fits where it doesn’t belong – like in their ears. Common objects include pebbles, hearing aid batteries, beans and small candies. Although it’s very normal for them to explore in this manner, it can lead to swelling, infection and temporary hearing loss.

How can you tell if your child has put something into his ear? You may not be able to immediately. If the object is lodged far enough into the ear canal, you may not notice until your child complains of an earache or that things sound “funny”. You may possibly see some discharge from the ear, although not always.

What to do

If you suspect your child has something stuck in his ear:

  • Remain calm. If your child is old enough to speak, ask them if they put something in their ear. Reassure them they are not in trouble and explain that it’s important to remove the object so they can hear.
  • Do not try to remove the object yourself, even if you can see it. You may push the object deeper into the ear canal and damage the eardrum.
  • Call your doctor immediately. If she is not available to see your child, take them to the nearest walk-in clinic or emergency room. Let the medical professionals decide the best way to remove the object. Afterward, they may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • It’s common for your child to be frightened at the thought of going to the doctor, especially when it’s a problem they caused. You can reassure them by explaining that removing the object won’t involve a shot or painful procedures. Ask your doctor or emergency room professional to explain any instruments they use before they begin the removal.

Selective listening

We jest, but no self-respecting kid ever listens to their parent(s) 100 percent of the time, right? That’s why you need to cut yourself a lot of slack if you’ve “misdiagnosed” your child with a case of selective listening when in fact they had a real hearing problem. Good listening and communication skills develop over time and one of the most important components is making sure they can hear well to begin with.

To keep your child’s hearing in tip-top shape:

  • Wash little ears daily with a soft washcloth and warm water.
  • Do not insert anything into the ear canal, such as a cotton swab or hairpin, to remove earwax or other debris.
  • Be mindful of hearing milestones and have your child’s hearing evaluated if they seem to have learning delays related to speech and language development.
  • Model good communication skills. Be attentive and affirming, eliminate distractions such as cell phones and other electronic equipment, make eye contact and smile. Children are great mimics. When you make hearing and communication a priority in your home, you instill good habits that will last them a lifetime.

If you are concerned about your child's hearing ability, please find a hearing care professional in your area who specializes in pediatric hearing testing. Hearing testing can be done at any age and many children find it quite fun!

Take our online Hearing Check

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