Tinnitus in children: Myth or reality?

March 25, 2012 by Kathia Faust
L’acouphène chez l’enfant, mythe ou réalité ?
Tinnitus is a condition whose existence is well established in adults. Regardless whether it is continuous or intermittent, whether the sound is low-pitched or high, or whether it is heard in just one ear or both, it can have a major impact on the quality of life of many adults.

So it’s worth asking: do children have tinnitus too?

For many years, it was believed that children were unaffected by tinnitus. Yet it now appears this condition is far from being an adults-only affair. Although little scientific literature exists on the topic, several studies seem to show that tinnitus can also occur in children. However, the authors note that children react differently to tinnitus than adults and find it much less disruptive. Indeed, only 3% of children will complain on their own in cases of tinnitus, but that figure can jump to 38% if they are asked about it. The difference can be attributed to the fact that, most of the time, children consider tinnitus to be a completely normal, familiar condition. Unlike adults, who often perceive tinnitus as a dangerous symptom of some underlying condition, children do not attach any medical significance to its onset or presence. It is well known that the extent to which something disturbs us is often associated with the emotional reaction it elicits and how much attention we pay to it. What’s more, children are more easily distracted than adults. Whether aided by external noise or another source of distraction, they find it easier to ignore tinnitus than adults do.

The characteristics of tinnitus in children

Although, generally speaking, few children complain of tinnitus unprompted, the condition proves to be quite real and more common than expected once children are questioned about it directly. Tinnitus seems to be particularly prevalent among children with sensorineural hearing loss, but it also appears to affect those with a temporary hearing loss (related to serous otitis media, for instance) and normal hearing. Tinnitus reported by children is most commonly described as a noise resembling ringing or buzzing. With a few exceptions, when asked, most children describe their tinnitus as continuous and report hearing it in both ears.

Behavioural repercussions

The psychological effects of tinnitus in adults have been fairly well documented: they include sleep disorders, difficulty concentrating, irritability, social isolation, anxiety and so on. But what about tinnitus in children? The few studies that have looked at this issue have shown that sleep disorders constitute the most significant impact of tinnitus on children’s day-to-day lives. However, this condition can have a considerable impact on child behaviour and development too. As with adults, tinnitus can cause anxiety and irritability in children, and it can also affect their ability to listen and concentrate in the classroom. As a result, it is important to remain attentive to this misunderstood condition and, most importantly, not to downplay its consequences. If your child tells you that he or she has tinnitus that is causing him or her trouble, be vigilant and consult an audiologist without delay. If your child doesn’t generally bring it up, there’s no use alarming or worrying him or her by raising the issue repeatedly.

For further information, don’t hesitate to consult an audiologist at a Lobe Santé auditive et communication multidisciplinary clinic.