Middle ear fluid is the most common cause of hearing loss in children below the age of two years and, luckily, it is usually temporary. However, at this critical age, the short-term effects of a temporary hearing loss can have long-term effects on your child’s speech and language development.
The primary culprit behind middle ear fluid (also known as otitis media with effusion or OME) in young children is the Eustachian tube. This duct connects the middle ear to the throat and it is critical for regulating the pressure in the middle ear space with the external environment. In young children, the Eustachian tube is generally flatter, shorter, and floppier than adults’. This means it is more prone to not opening when it needs to, such as when yawning or chewing, and also means it is more likely to suction shut. This causes a vacuum in the middle ear space, drawing fluids out of the surrounding tissue and causing OME.
In most children, this fluid does not develop into a noticeable hearing loss. It also usually resolves within weeks to months and rarely becomes infected. When you bring your child in for a hearing loss, we will determine the degree and type of hearing loss and whether it is appropriate to refer on to an ear, nose, and throat physician. If your child is otherwise healthy with no known developmental delays, then we will typically adopt a “wait-and-see” approach by scheduling another hearing test in three months.
What is not well understood are the long-term effects of OME when it does not result in a “noticeable” hearing loss. Children with a mild hearing loss can be difficult to catch – they miss quiet sounds and distant sounds, and struggle in noisy environments. Children with chronic OME in childhood can have life-long difficulties processing noise and may be more sensitive to sound as an adult.
If you have any concerns about your child’s hearing, please don’t wait. A short term hearing loss can have long term effects on speech and language development.