Ear infections in young children could lead to delayed speech for them, study finds


Chronic ear infections could delay a child’s language development, new research suggests.

University of Florida researchers launched a study about how the common childhood infection could impact speech.

Early ear infections (otitis media) have the potential to impair hearing due to fluid buildup behind the eardrum, according to the study, which was published in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology in November 2023.

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Researchers investigated the auditory processing and language development of 117 kids between 5 and 10 years of age, including those with and without a history of chronic ear infections.

Children who experienced several ear infections before turning 3 had a smaller vocabulary and found it difficult to match similar-sounding words.

Early ear infections could lead to a later delay in speech, according to a study from the University of Florida. (iStock)

These children also had a hard time detecting changes in sound, which could signify a problem in the brain’s auditory processing center.

Study co-author and UF professor Susan Nittrouer, PhD, discussed the findings in a statement to Fox News Digital.

“For most children, language development appears to unfold so effortlessly that it is easy for us to lose sight of what a remarkable feat this is,” she said. 

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“And ear infections are so common among infants and toddlers that it is easy to view them as completely benign,” she added.

The study uncovered “two somewhat novel findings,” Nittrouer noted.

little girl has ears checked by doctor

It’s important for guardians to pay attention to their children’s ear infection history, said the study’s lead researcher (not pictured). (iStock)

The first finding is the association of ear infections with poorer abilities to recognize patterns in the acoustic signals present in speech.

“The central auditory pathways develop after birth,” the researcher said. 

“If enough auditory input is not available to the child – which happens with temporary periods of hearing loss due to ear infections – that development of auditory pathways is delayed and these listening abilities do not develop properly.”

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The second finding implied that this poor recognition of acoustic patterns impairs the ability of children to identify specific speech sounds, including elements like syllables.

“As they get older, the language they encounter, especially in school, becomes more complex and more dependent on that level of language structure.”

“This is a critical finding,” Nittrouer said. “During early periods of language acquisition, children do not have or need keen sensitivity to phonological structure – individual speech sounds.” 

She added, “But as they get older, the language they encounter, especially in school, becomes more complex and more dependent on that level of language structure and the child’s ability to accurately and quickly recognize the individual speech sounds in words.”

speech therapist works with kid

One of the study’s “critical findings” was that ear infections can cause poor identification of speech sounds, the lead researcher said. (iStock)

This means that children who are delayed and challenged in their language development will “experience stronger challenges” as they get older, Nittrouer said.

“Contrary to the idea that the child will ‘get over’ or ‘outgrow’ the effects of early [ear infections], these effects may actually intensify,” she said.

“We must take every ear infection seriously.”

Nittrouer encouraged parents and caregivers to monitor children for “language-learning, academic and attentional difficulties,” including reading disabilities, as they age.

“It also means that we must take every ear infection seriously,” she added.

Other early health histories can delay a child’s speech as well, Nittrouer said — which means kids should be monitored for language development “well past the early school years.”

She also said that “the problems arising from such conditions may only present themselves as the language demands of school increase.”

speech therapist and little boy

Ear infections can delay the development of auditory pathways in early childhood, the study found. (iStock)

Cedars Sinai Guerin Children’s pediatric otolaryngologist Abhita Reddy, M.D., who was not involved in the study, told Fox News Digital she feels that in her view, the research is “under-powered.”

“The experiment had very few subjects studied and yet drew a broad conclusion from them,” the Los Angeles-based doctor said via email. “When a study has such few subjects in their experiment, often the conclusions can be easily skewed by confounding variables.”

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Reddy also pointed out that the chosen population of patients studied was “concerning,” as the study looked at children who reportedly did not have many ear infections as defined by parents.

“[This] can introduce a lot of concern regarding the type of otitis media the child had, as there are two types – acute otitis media and chronic otitis media with effusion – that can have very different effects on patients’ language development,” she said.

doctor checks little girl's ears

The effects of early ear infections could “intensify” as a child grows up, according to the researchers’ findings. (iStock)

The definition of patients who had experienced ear infections was “even more concerning,” Reddy said, since the authors apparently studied patients who had never received ear tubes.

“They did not mention whether the patient had ear tubes during the time of [the] experiment, how many sets they had or what the indications for their ear tubes were,” she said.

The specialist said that in her opinion, parents shouldn’t draw conclusions from this study and she does not believe the research will impact the future of ENT care.

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“We know that recurrent acute otitis media in certain patients can be caused by eustachian tube dysfunction (a tube in our bodies that connects the middle ear space to the back of the nose) … [which], if not treated early, can lead to lifelong issues with hearing in the form of conductive hearing loss (ability for sound to transmit to the hearing nerve),” Reddy added.

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