Chronic ear infections associated with language delay in children
Vigilant monitoring and prompt treatment can help protect against poor outcomes.
Ear infections are a common childhood experience, but a new study suggests that parents should take these infections seriously to keep their children’s language development at bay. This is because every ear infection can lead to hearing loss with fluid accumulation behind the eardrum.
The relationship between chronic ear infections and language development
New research from University of Florida Scientists reveal that when ear infections become chronic, recurrent and temporary hearing loss can lead to deficits in auditory processing and language development in children years later.
“Ear infections are so common that we tend to dismiss them as having no long-term impact. We should take all ear infections seriously,” said Susan Nitterwehr, lead researcher and professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences in the School of Public Health and Health Professions. “Parents should be aware that their child may have some middle ear fluid without it being painful and work with their doctor to monitor their child closely.”
Study results on auditory processing and language skills
Nitroer and Joanna Loewenstein, researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences, studied auditory processing and language development in 117 children ages 5 to 10, with or without a history of chronic ear infections in early childhood.
On average, children who had several ear infections before the age of three had smaller vocabularies and had difficulty matching words with similar pronunciation compared to children who had few or no ear infections. They also had difficulty detecting changes in sounds, which is a sign of problems in the brain’s auditory processing centers.
One takeaway, Nittrouer says, is for parents, doctors and speech pathologists to continue monitoring children long after the last of the preschooler’s earaches has passed. Some language deficits may only appear in later grades.
“When kids go to school, the language they have to use becomes more complex,” Nitterwehr said.
Assessing language development and auditory processing
Nitroer and Loewenstein used three tests to assess language development and auditory processing. In one test, the children had to find out which of the three cute cartoon characters looked different from the other two. This involved manipulating patterns of loudness, or amplitude, that change over time.
“The better you can recognize this change in amplitude over time, the better you can recognize the structure of speech,” Nittrouer said.
The second task asked children to name pictures presented to them, a measure of the size of their vocabulary. Finally, children were asked to match words based on whether they began or ended with the same speech sound, a task essential not only for speech development but also for reading acquisition.
Prevention and treatment of ear infections
Treating ear infections early can help prevent fluid buildup that harms language development, according to Netreuer. If ear infections are common and fluid builds up, tubes temporarily placed in the eardrum can help drain the fluid and restore hearing, resulting in a reduced risk of delays in the development of the central auditory pathways and fewer problems with language acquisition.
Future research directions
The researchers published their findings in November in the journal International Journal of Pediatric Otolaryngology. They plan to continue this research by including children who are at risk for delays in auditory development due to other causes, including premature birth.
Reference: “Early otitis media puts children at risk for later hearing and language deficits” by Susan Nitterwehr and Joanna H. Lowenstein, November 22, 2023, International Journal of Pediatric Otolaryngology.