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Ear Infections Could Delay a Child's Speech
  • Posted January 8, 2024

Ear Infections Could Delay a Child's Speech

Ear infections are common for kids, but they can lead to long-term developmental problems, a new study finds.

Temporary hearing loss caused by recurring ear infections can lead to delays in language development and sound processing years later, researchers reported recently in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology.

“Ear infections are so common that we tend to dismiss them as having no long-term effect. We should take all ear infections seriously,” said lead researcher Susan Nittrouer, a University of Florida professor of speech, language and hearing sciences.

For the study, Nittrouer and her colleagues tracked the development of 117 children ages 5 to 10.

Children who suffered several ear infections before the age of 3 tended to have smaller vocabularies, and they had a harder time matching similar-sounding words, researchers found.

Kids prone to ear infections also had difficulty detecting changes in sounds, an indication of problems in their brain's auditory processing centers.

Ear infections hamper hearing because fluid builds up behind the eardrum, Nittrouer noted. Fluid buildup can affect hearing even if an ear infection isn't painful.

That means parents, doctors and educators need to pay close attention to kids who are prone to ear infections, even if nothing appears to be wrong with them, Nittrouer said.

Treating ear infections early can help prevent this fluid buildup, Nittrouer said. Kids with chronic ear infections also can be treated through temporary tubes that help drain fluid.

These kids should continue to be monitored for potential developmental delays throughout their academic career, since some language deficits may only reveal themselves in later grades, the researchers said.

“As children go through school, the language they're required to use becomes more complex,” Nittrouer said in a university news release.

Her team used three tests to assess the kids' language and hearing abilities.

In one test, children had to identify which of three cartoon characters sounded different than the other two.

Children also were asked to name pictures presented to them, to test their vocabulary, and to match words based on whether they began or ended with the same speech sound.

The researchers plan to continue their research by focusing on children at risk for hearing development delays due to other reasons, including premature birth.

More information

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has more about ear infections.

SOURCE: University of Florida, news release, Jan. 3, 2024

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