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Causes of deafness

There are many reasons why a child might be born deaf or become deaf in childhood. Although not knowing the cause of deafness can be very upsetting, it isn’t always possible to identify the reason. You may be offered tests to try to find the cause of your child’s deafness but they will only be able to identify the cause in 40–50% of children.

Causes of deafness before birth (pre-natal causes)

Permanent deafness in children is most commonly caused by genetics, passed down in families, even though there appears to be no family history of deafness.

Some of the most common syndromes associated with hearing loss are:

  • Alport syndrome
  • Branchio-Oto-Renal syndrome
  • CHARGE syndrome
  • Crouzon syndrome
  • Down's syndrome
  • Goldenhar syndrome
  • Jervell and Lange Nielsen syndrome
  • Pendred syndrome, where children have enlarged vestibular aqueducts
  • Stickler syndrome
  • Treacher Collins syndrome
  • Usher syndrome Type 1 and Type 2
  • Waardenburg syndrome
  • Wolfram Syndrome

For detailed information on these syndromes, visit Contact.

Deafness can also be caused by complications during pregnancy. Infections such as rubella, cytomegalovirus (CMV), toxoplasmosis and herpes can cause a child to be born deaf.

There are also a range of medicines, known as ototoxic drugs, which can damage a baby’s hearing system before birth.

Hearing can be affected by cleft palate or cleft lip and palate, which can occur on its own or be linked to one of the syndromes listed above.

Different types of deafness can be associated with microtia and atresia, depending on which part of the ear is not formed or working as it should.

Causes in childhood (post-natal causes)

Being born prematurely can increase the risk of a child being deaf or becoming deaf. Premature babies are often more prone to infections that can cause deafness. Severe jaundice or a lack of oxygen at some point can also cause deafness. Infections during early childhood, such as meningitis, measles and mumps, can be responsible for a child becoming deaf.

Temporary deafness in children is most commonly caused by glue ear.

Children may develop a rare ear disease known as cholesteatoma. This can happen at any time during childhood.

Children born with enlarged vestibular aqueducts can be born with a hearing loss which can be progressive or develop for the first time in early childhood.

Children may develop a rare condition known as otosclerosis. This can happen at any time during childhood, but is more common in teenagers and young adults.

Occasionally, a head injury or exposure to loud noise can damage the hearing system.

Ototoxic drugs used in medical treatments

Ototoxic drugs (drugs that can cause damage to the inner ear) used in some medical treatments can cause hearing loss, tinnitus and balance problems. 

Children being treated for cancer are at particular risk of hearing loss caused by the cisplatin-based chemotherapy agents used in childhood cancer treatment. Children having chemotherapy should have their hearing levels monitored regularly to check for any deterioration early, so that oncologists (cancer doctors) can consider alternative drugs or changing treatment doses. Hearing aids can also be offered if needed.

RNID have more information about deafness caused by ototoxic drugs.

Medical tests used to help diagnose the cause of deafness

Information about how you can try to find out the cause of your child’s hearing loss can be found in Chapter 8 ‘Medical tests used to help diagnose the cause of permanent deafness’ in our resource Understanding Your Child's Hearing Tests.

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