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Pediatric Otoacoustic Emissions (OAE)

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Summary

Otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) are low-intensity sound waves produced in the inner ear. In a healthy ear, outer hair cells on the cochlea will "echo" acoustic stimuli. An otoacoustic emissions test is an effective screening method to assess hearing in newborns.

Expanded Overview

Audiologists measure OAEs by inserting a probe equipped with speakers and a microphone into your baby's outer ear canal. The probe's speakers generate clicks while the microphone measures the resulting OAEs. The OAE test is quick and painless and provides the screener with immediate results. Most newborns respond well to OAE testing, although a few patients may need further screenings.

Tests and Diagnosis

There are two types of OAE devices:

  • Transient evoked OAE (TEOAE): TEOAEs emit a single click that covers a broad range of frequencies. It is most often used in infant screening, to confirm other tests or to check cochlear function.
  • Distortion product OAE (DPOAE): DPOAEs emit a pair of brief tones at two different frequencies. DPOAE can test for cochlear or noise-induced damage and ototoxicity.

To begin the test, the screener will insert the OAE device into your child's outer ear. The probe is equipped with speakers and a microphone to provide feedback.

Next, the doctor will activate the click(s). The device sends the test results to a computer. The audiologist will immediately be able to tell if he needs to refer your child for additional tests.

A referral does not necessarily mean your child has an ear disorder. Poor responses can result if the room is too noisy, your baby is fussy or if there is fluid in a newborn's ear (from the birth process).  An OAE test is usually done a second time in the case of a poor response during the first screening.

Diagnosis

Otoacoustic emissions can reveal abnormalities in your baby's inner ear. An OAE test can identify the following:

  • Normal inner ear function
  • Blockages in the auditory canal
  • Proper tympanic membrane and outer hair cell function

Early detection of ear problems can help prevent future hearing loss.

Treatment

Hearing problems are common in children. Nearly 6 in 1,000 children in the United States have some kind of hearing loss. If hearing loss is present at birth or occurs in early childhood, it can have a negative impact on speech and language development. Early screening, such as otoacoustic emissions testing, can help identify problems and prevent hearing loss.

FAQs

Is OAE testing safe?

Otoacoustic testing is completely safe. The procedure is non-invasive and takes only 10 to 30 seconds for each ear.

Who needs OAE testing?

Otoacoustic emissions tests are a common screening method for newborns and infants under 90 days of age. It may also be used on older children with developmental disabilities or those who won’t tolerate other types of hearing tests.

What does OAE screening test for?

The test can identify abnormal inner ear functioning, any blockages in the auditory canal or damage to the outer hair cells. An OAE test does not, however, record inner hair cell functions or auditory processing functioning.

What happens during an otoacoustic emission test?

An OAE test typically takes just a few minutes. Your child does not need to actively participate to receive the test.

Is an OAE test conclusive?

No, an OAE test can be compromised by outside noises or if your child is restless or fussy. The test will often be performed a second time to verify the initial results.

Resources

This page describes what otoacoustic emissions are and how they are measured.
Audiology Online

This page offers a much more detailed description of OAEs and tympanometry; this information is geared toward pediatricians.
Maico Diagnostics

For information about newborn hearing screening in the UK, see this website.
National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS)

This is a research paper OAEs used for screening children’s hearing.
Archives of Disease in Childhood

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