Tinnitus is an extremely common condition of the ears, which is believed to affect up to 20 per cent of people. Although tinnitus is most commonly found in older adults, children can also be affected by it. Highly experienced consultant ENT surgeon Mr Angus Waddell shares his vast expertise on how tinnitus can affect children.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing sounds without any external acoustic stimulation. For the patient it may be trivial or it may rarely become a debilitating condition. Tinnitus may be perceived in one or both ears, within the head or outside the body. Tinnitus is described in most cases as subjective ‐ meaning that it cannot be heard by anyone other than the patient. For children, this perception of noise is very real, because there is no corresponding external sound it can be considered a phantom, or false, perception. Tinnitus may be associated with normal hearing or any degree of hearing loss and can occur at any age.
Is it common in children?
Tinnitus is remarkably common in children with up to a third of children with normal hearing reporting tinnitus symptoms if directly asked. This rises to up to two thirds of children with a hearing loss. Many children may have tinnitus but they don’t report it as a symptom.
What does tinnitus sound like?
The quality of the perceived sound can vary enormously from simple sounds such as ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming to complex sounds such as music. Hearing a pulsatile tinnitus in time with the heartbeat is also quite common. The child may hear a single sound or multiple sounds and the symptom may be continuous or intermittent. The only thing excluded from the definition of tinnitus is hearing voices.
How can I tell if my child has tinnitus?
You can really only tell if your child has tinnitus by asking them. Because tinnitus is almost always a subjective symptom there will be nothing for the parent to see or hear. However, tinnitus in children is often associated with mild or variable hearing loss and you as a parent might notice that your child has reduced hearing. Children may report tinnitus as a symptom without them noticing any underlying hearing loss.
Between the ages of two and ten years old any hearing loss is usually caused by a recent cold or from a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum also known as glue ear. Children who have previously had glue ear which has been treated or resolved spontaneously may still complain of tinnitus. So, you might only know that your child has tinnitus by asking them about strange noises they might be hearing. However, by asking them you may be drawing attention to a symptom which was not troubling them. Some children may have some other problems caused by the tinnitus which aren’t immediately obvious to a parent including sleep difficulties, noise avoidance, quiet avoidance, or difficulties concentrating and listening.
What should I do if my child says they are hearing noises?
Reassure them that the tinnitus is usually temporary and short lived. The symptom of tinnitus is very, very rarely associated with anything serious. If the tinnitus is persistent for more than a few weeks or if it is very distressing to the child then you should arrange to have your child’s hearing checked by an audiologist.
How can I manage my child's tinnitus?
The most important thing to do is to keep doing all the things your child enjoys including listening to music, TV, story time etc. Normal levels of environmental noise will not harm your child’s ears and may help the tinnitus to disappear into the background. If you start living your life differently to accommodate the tinnitus, it’s just going to seem more of a problem. Many professionals would try to direct the child’s attention away from the tinnitus with reassurance by playing it down as a symptom and this approach also works for parents.
If you or your child is experiencing tinnitus or any other ear, nose or throat related issue, you can request an appointment Mr Angus Waddell by visiting his Top Doctors profile.