Preschoolers who suffer repeated ear infections may have problems picking up crucial listening skills.
That's what researchers at Penn State are discovering in a study of 50 children. Fortunately, parents can short-circuit problems by following some sensible guidelines.
Ear infections often lead to a buildup of fluid within the middle ear, causing a temporary hearing loss. Lynne Feagans and Ingrid Blood, leaders of the day-care study, liken the effect to plugging the ears with fingers. Older children can continue to understand spoken language because they are skilled in filling in the blanks. Young children haven't yet developed that ability, and can get lost in conversation. If ear infections are frequent enough, these children may be late in developing listening skills, and be at risk for early school problems.
Younger children may develop speech problems, as well. Unlike the listening problems, however, speech difficulties usually fade once infections become infrequent, around age 4, according to Feagans and Blood.
The researchers tell parents to keep these precautions in mind:
* Watch day-care children particularly closely. These youngsters are three times as likely as kids cared for at home to develop ear infections.
* Treat infections promptly. Untreated infections can damage organs of the ear and lead to permanent hearing loss and other complications. Ear infections accompanied by headache, dizziness, chills or fever may indicate the infection is spreading. This can develop into an emergency situation. See a doctor immediately.
* Pay attention to apparent hearing problems after colds and flu, when ear infections are most common.
* Remember that ear infections may cause temporary hearing loss even if the child has no discomfort. Some infections cause pain, but three-quarters of the children in the study with fluid in their ears reported no pain.
* When fluid is present, make accommodations. Speak a little more loudly and slowly. When possible, talk to the child in a quiet area. And let teachers know about the problem so they can make adjustments as well.