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Hearing Impairment in Children


Udayan K. Shah

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020

Common causes of hearing loss are genetic defects in neonates and ear infections and cerumen in children. Many cases are detected by screening, but hearing loss should be suspected if children do not respond to sounds or have delayed speech development. Diagnosis is usually by electrodiagnostic testing (evoked otoacoustic emissions testing and auditory brain stem response) in neonates and by clinical examination and tympanometry in children. Treatment for irreversible hearing loss may include a hearing aid or cochlear implant.

(See also Hearing Loss.)

In the US, permanent childhood hearing loss is detected in 1.1/1000 infants screened. On average, 1.9% of children reported “hearing trouble.” Hearing impairment is slightly more common among boys than girls; the average male:female ratio is 1.24:1.

Etiology of Hearing Impairment in Children


The most common causes of hearing loss in neonates are

Congenital CMV infection is the most common intrauterine infection in the US. CMV infection may account for as much as 21% of all sensorineural hearing loss at birth. In addition, because CMV infection also may cause late-onset hearing loss, CMV may account for as much as 25% of sensorineural hearing loss present at 4 years of age.

Some Genetic Causes of Hearing Loss


Inheritance Pattern

Clinical Findings

Branchio-oto-renal syndrome (Melnick-Fraser syndrome)


Most have hearing loss and ear abnormalities

Associated with renal abnormalities and branchial cleft cysts or fistulas

Jervell and Lange-Nielsen syndrome


Profound congenital hearing loss

Abnormal cardiac rhythms (eg, prolonged QTc interval)

Increased risk of syncope and sudden death

Pendred syndrome


Progressive hearing loss

Associated with simple nontoxic goiter (euthyroid goiter), congenital goiter, and vestibular symptoms

Stickler syndrome


Hearing loss varies in degree and may become more severe over time

Associated with bony and skeletal abnormalities

Many have severe nearsightedness

Usher syndrome


Accounts for 3 to 6% of all children who are deaf and another 3 to 6% of children who are hard of hearing

Associated with retinitis pigmentosa

Three clinical types

Waardenburg syndrome


When hearing loss occurs, it is congenital 

Associated with pigmentary changes in hair, eyes, and skin

Four recognized types, each with different physical characteristics

AD = autosomal dominant; AR = autosomal recessive.

Risk factors for hearing loss in neonates include the following:

Infants and children

The most common causes in infants and children are

  • Cerumen accumulations
  • Middle ear effusions, including otitis media with effusion

Other causes in older children include head injuries, loud noises (including loud music), use of ototoxic drugs (eg, aminoglycosides, thiazides), viral infections (eg, mumps), tumors or injuries affecting the auditory nerve, foreign bodies of the ear canal, and, rarely, autoimmune disorders.

Risk factors for hearing loss in children include those for neonates plus the following:

Etiology reference

  • 1. Goderis J, De Leenheer E, Smets K, et al: Hearing loss and congenital CMV infection: A systematic review. Pediatrics 134(5):972–982, 2014. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1173

Symptoms and Signs of Hearing Impairment in Children

If hearing loss is severe, the infant or child may not respond to sounds or may have delayed speech or language comprehension. If hearing loss is less severe, children may intermittently ignore people talking to them. Children may appear to be developing well in certain settings but have problems in others. For example, because the background noise of a classroom can make speech discrimination difficult, the child may have problems hearing only at school.

Not recognizing and treating impairment can seriously impair language comprehension and speech. The impairment can lead to failure in school, teasing by peers, social isolation, and emotional difficulties.

Diagnosis of Hearing Impairment in Children

  • Electrodiagnostic testing (neonates)
  • Clinical examination and tympanometry (children)

Screening all infants before age 3 months is often recommended and is legally mandated in most states (1). The initial screening test is evoked otoacoustic emissions testing, using soft clicks made by a handheld device. If results are abnormal or equivocal, auditory brain stem evoked responses are tested, which can be done during sleep; abnormal results should be confirmed with repeat testing after 1 month. If a genetic cause is suspected, genetic testing can be done.

In children, other methods can be used. Speech and overall development are assessed clinically. The ears are examined, and tympanic membrane movement is tested in response to various frequencies to screen for middle ear effusions. In children age 6 months to 2 years, response to sounds is tested. At age > 2 years, ability to follow simple auditory commands can be assessed, as can responses to sounds using earphones. Central auditory processing evaluation can be used for children > 7 years without neurocognitive deficits who seem to hear but not to comprehend.

Imaging is often indicated to identify the etiology and guide prognosis. For most cases, including when neurologic examination is abnormal, word recognition is poor, and/or hearing loss is asymmetric, gadolinium-enhanced MRI is done. If bone abnormalities are suspected, CT is done.

Diagnosis reference

  • 1. US Preventive Services Task Force: Universal screening for hearing loss in newborns: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Pediatrics 122(1):143–148, 2008. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-2210

Treatment of Hearing Impairment in Children

  • Hearing aids or cochlear implants for irreversible hearing loss
  • Sometimes teaching a nonauditory language

Reversible causes and abnormalities are treated.

If hearing loss is irreversible, a hearing aid can usually be used. They are available for infants as well as children. If hearing loss is mild or moderate or affects only one ear, a hearing aid or earphones can be used. In the classroom, an FM auditory trainer can be used. With an FM auditory trainer, the teacher speaks into a microphone that send signals to a hearing aid in the nonaffected ear.

If hearing loss is severe enough that it cannot be managed with hearing aids, a cochlear implant may be needed. Children may also require therapy to support their language development, such as being taught a visually based sign language.

Key Points

  • Common causes of hearing loss in neonates are cytomegalovirus infection or genetic defects and in infants and older children are cerumen accumulation and middle ear infusions.
  • Suspect hearing loss if a child's response to sounds or development of speech and language is abnormal.
  • Screen infants for hearing loss, beginning with evoked otoacoustic emissions testing.
  • Diagnose children based on results of clinical examination and tympanometry.
  • Treat irreversible hearing loss with a hearing aid or cochlear implant and language support (eg, teaching sign language) as needed.

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