Ear infections are one of the most common illnesses reported in young children. In fact, about 80% of children under the age of 3 have been affected by at least one ear infection and half of these children suffer with three or more infections.
Otitis media is the medical term for inflammation of the middle ear that is accompanied by fluid build-up. When fluid builds in the middle ear, it prevents the tiny bones inside the ear from moving properly. This prevents sound from being conducted and therefore the individual’s hearing may be impaired until the fluid clears. Frequent ear infections often play a significant role in the development of speech and language.
According to ASHA, the reason ear infections are so common in children is because “the eustachian tube, a passage between the middle ear and the back of the throat, is smaller and more nearly horizontal in children than in adults. Therefore, it can be more easily blocked by conditions such as large adenoids and infections. Until the eustachian tube changes in size and angle as the child grows, children are more susceptible to otitis media.”
A child with frequent ear infections can experience a temporary hearing impairment with each occurrence. Research studies report that fluid buildup can last for up to 6 weeks after the ear infection has resolved. If these infections are happening often, the amount of time that the child is not hearing adequately adds up and can have a significant impact on the development of speech and language skills.
Alternatively, some children with repeated ear infections, experience damage to the bones in the ear, in the nerves, and the eardrum, leading to hearing loss. Since children learn their communication skills by listening to people talk, any type of extended loss of hearing (such as during an ear infection when there is fluid build-up) or hearing loss can affect their speech and language development. Middle ear infections can impact hearing in a variety of ways. Some children may experience no hearing loss, while others may have mild or moderate hearing loss. A mild hearing loss may lessen the child’s ability to hear or distinguish word endings or soft sounds such as “f”,”t”, “k”, “sh”,and “s”. A moderate hearing loss can affect the child’s ability to hear most speech sounds and word endings.
Imagine what it feels like when you are traveling in an airplane and your ears are clogged or if you are swimming and listening to sounds under water. This muffled sound quality is similar to what a child experiences when they have an ear infection of fluid build up in their ear canal. This can have a negative impact on the child’s ability to hear or distinguish speech sounds and understand language.
Children experiencing ear infections or fluid build-up should be monitored for any signs of speech and language delay. Prevention, early recognition, and treatment of ear infections are all very important. Healthy Hearing, an organization dedicated to identifying and treating hearing loss in children, has compiled a list of indicators that your child’s hearing may be affected:
Has difficulty understanding what people are saying.
Speaks differently than other children her or his age.
Doesn’t reply when you call his or her name.
Responds inappropriately to questions (misunderstands).
Turns up the TV volume incredibly high or sits very close to the TV to hear.
Has problems academically, especially if they weren’t present before.
Has speech or language delays or problems articulating things.
Watches others in order to imitate their actions, at home or in school.
Complains of ear pain, earaches or noises.
Cannot understand over the phone or switches ears frequently while talking on the phone.
Says “what?” or “huh?” several times a day.
Watches a speaker’s face very intently—many children’s hearing loss escapes detection because they are very successful lip readers
The first few years of life are critical for the development of speech, language and communication skills. While not all children with ear infections have a speech and language delay, 1/3 of children currently receiving therapy for a speech and language delay have a reported history of recurrent ear infection (Hearing Health Associates).
If you have any concerns regarding your child’s speech and language skills, our therapists here at Talk Time Speech Language Therapy are happy to answer your questions and help!