Impacts of Seasonal Allergies on Speech and Hearing
Seasonal allergies can severely affect speech and language development. Several children who present with speech or voice disorders will also suffer from allergic rhinitis and/or asthma. Allergies interfere with the nasal passage and cause congestion, which further compromises auditory acuity and perception therefore interfering with production and intelligibility. Asthma is a condition in which an individual’s airway becomes inflamed, thus causing them to narrow and swell making it difficult to breath. It is important to note, both of these conditions result in inflammation and swelling of the airways, and when the nasal tissue becomes inflamed, the voice is affected. The impacted voice, including irritated vocal cords due to frequent clearing of the throat from increased nasal drainage, can result in improper articulation. Additionally, children who present with severe congestion often breathe through their mouth and young children who utilize this breathing pattern frequently may create a habit of a perpetually opened mouth with a protruding tongue. This posture severely impacts the quality of their speech and articulation as this behavior perpetuates lingual weakness as well as inadequate tone in other oral motor muscles. This breathing pattern is actually one of the possible causes of orofacial myofunctional disorder (OMD), which is commonly referred to as a “tongue thrust”, resulting in the improper articulation of the sounds “t”, “d”, “n”, “s”, “z”, “l”, “sh”, “ch” and “j”.
Seasonal allergies can not only affect articulation and vocal quality, but also hearing as well. In addition to congestion, allergies can cause ear infections secondary to fluid in the middle ear space. Ear infections with concomitant fluid in the middle ear space are known to create a temporary conductive hearing loss, which can negatively impact a child’s ability to recognize, discriminate, and produce phonemes. When the Eustachian tube becomes clogged, children experience pain or pressure in the ears, along with reduced ability to hear. Hearing loss from ear infections is usually temporary and can be resolved with treatment prescribed by a medical professional. However, children with allergies may suffer from more frequent ear infections and may experience a more severe impact on hearing. Hearing is critical for speech and language development as if a child cannot hear, it interferes with their ability to understand language or discriminate sounds as they may not be able to hear softer, high-frequency sounds, causing them to mispronounce the sound.
There are certain signs and symptoms that may show that a child is presenting with seasonal allergies. These include constant runny nose, excessive sneezing or coughing, watery eyes, dark circles under the eyes and/or itchy eyes or nose. Additionally, the child may complain that their mouth or throat feels itchy when eating certain fruits or vegetables, such as bananas, cucumbers and melons, which is called oral allergy syndrome (OAS) and often occurs in those who are allergic to ragweed. It is important to have the child fully diagnosed by a medical professional to ensure these symptoms are secondary to allergies and not a cold.
Luckily, allergies are treatable and may only require an over-the-counter medication or an antihistamine nasal spray that can be used daily and improve quality of life immediately for the child. It is also important to evaluate the child’s environment to find ways to reduce possible allergens at home. This includes keeping the windows closed, acquiring an air purifier, and encouraging hand or body washing immediately after playing outside.
– Rebecca Hipp M.A., CF-SLP, TSSLD