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Causes of Hearing Loss in Children

Thursday, August 20, 2020

If your child was recently diagnosed with a hearing loss in one or both ears, you likely have many questions about what caused the hearing loss and how you can help your child succeed. Answers to some of the more common questions related to hearing loss are addressed here.

What causes hearing loss?

To understand the causes of hearing loss, it is helpful to know more about the ear and how hearing works. When we think about the ear, we typically think about the part that is visible—the outer ear.  However, there are actually three parts to the ear: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The inner ear contains the organ of hearing, which is called the cochlea.  

In order for sound to be sent to the brain for processing, it must travel from the outer ear to the inner ear. The outer ear collects sound waves that pass through the air and funnels them into the ear canal.  These sound waves then vibrate the ear drum and three tiny bones located in the middle ear, and the vibration of these bones activate microscopic sensory cells in the cochlea. These cells, known as hair cells, convert the vibrations into electrical signals that travel along the hearing nerve to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. When a hearing loss is present, the message sent to the brain may be incomplete or absent, making it difficult for the brain to process what is heard. 

cross-section diagram of the ear

OUTER EAR acts as a funnel to collect sound vibrations and conduct them to the eardrum.

MIDDLE EAR amplifies the sound vibrations and conducts them to the inner ear.

INNER EAR contains the cochlea which converts sound vibrations into neural impulses that travel up the auditory nerve.

Hearing loss can affect one or more parts of the ear and interrupt the natural pathway of sound. There are two main types of hearing loss: conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is hearing loss which is due to an issue in the outer or middle ear, such as a buildup of ear wax, an ear infection, a hole in the ear drum, or a malformation of the outer or middle ear structures.  This type of hearing loss can often be treated with medication or surgery, and hearing aids may be beneficial for chronic issues.  

The majority of hearing losses, however, are related to an issue in the cochlea. This is called sensorineural hearing loss. Some common causes of sensorineural hearing loss include genetics, medications, the natural aging process, and noise exposure. Other causes that are more common among infants and young children are maternal infections during pregnancy, premature birth, and meningitis.  It is possible to have both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, which is known as mixed hearing loss. Be sure to talk to your child’s audiologist if you have questions about the type and cause of your child’s hearing loss.

What is nerve deafness?

Sensorineural hearing loss is most often due to the loss of hair cells in the cochlea, which affects how sound is sent to the hearing nerve and ultimately the brain. You may have heard the term nerve deafness to describe your child’s hearing loss. This term is sometimes used in place of sensorineural hearing loss even though the issue may be within the cochlea rather than with the hearing nerve. Hair cells in the cochlea cannot be repaired or replaced once they are damaged or lost. The most common treatment options for sensorineural hearing loss are hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Which treatment option is best for my child’s hearing loss?

A hearing evaluation is needed to determine a suitable treatment option. Depending on the type and severity of your child’s hearing loss, hearing aids or cochlear implants may be recommended. Your child’s audiologist will be able to determine the hearing solution that is most appropriate for your child’s hearing loss.

How can I support my child with hearing loss?

a smiling child holding two maraca instruments

Whether your child is using hearing aids, cochlear implants, or a combination of these hearing devices, the path to success starts by ensuring that your child is wearing their devices all day, every day. In addition, communication and interaction with your child are key. BabyBeats, a free early intervention app for both Apple and Android devices, provides a fun and motivating way to interact with your baby.  Using music and movement, this app guides you through a series of activities to help you bond and play with your baby while supporting their early listening and language development.

For additional resources on communication options, connecting to the hearing loss community, and how you can help your child get a strong start, visit our Tools for Schools page. 

Sarah Benner, Au.D., CCC-A
Written by Sarah Benner

Sarah Benner, Au.D., CCC-A

Sarah has been part of the Sonova family since December 2014. She lives in Western Washington and currently works as a Pediatric Territory Manager for Phonak in the Northwest. Her primary focus in this role is pediatric amplification and Roger/FM fittings in both clinical and school settings. Prior to joining Phonak in 2019, Sarah worked as a Cochlear Implant Consumer Specialist for Advanced Bionics providing support and education to cochlear implant candidates and recipients on their journeys to better hearing. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and golden retriever puppy as well as finding the best gelato shops in the Northwest. Sarah received her Au.D. from Idaho State University and her B.A. in Speech and Hearing Sciences from Washington State University. Go Cougs!

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