September 18, 2019
Most new parents are “playing by ear” when it comes to baby care, but there’s one important thing to know: There’s one place you should never kiss a baby—or anyone else, for that matter—and that’s the ear, according to Professor of Audiology Levi Reiter of Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
Indeed, according to a report by NBC News, an innocent kiss right on the ear opening creates strong suction that can tug on the delicate eardrum, resulting in a recently recognized condition known as “cochlear ear-kiss injury.”
Dr. Reiter has been studying the phenomenon ever since a woman came to him five years ago with a strange story about going deaf in one ear immediately after her five-year-old kissed her there.
“I thought this lady was a unique case,” says Reiter. After a bit of research, though, he discovered another case of ear-kiss injury reported in the 1950s.
Ear-kiss patients exhibit a characteristic pattern of hearing loss, Reiter said, with hearing most diminished in the frequency range of unvoiced consonants, such as “ch” and “sh.”
“There are a lot of cases of unknown unilateral hearing loss in kids, and I am sure that a good portion are from a peck on the ear,” he says.
Babies and small children are particularly vulnerable to hearing damage via kiss, simply because their ear canals are smaller. A baby will cry after such a painful kiss, he told NBC News, but “kids cry for a lot of reasons.” Unfortunately, hearing loss usually isn’t identified until years later, during a school screening.
Unilateral hearing loss can be acquired from a blow to the ear, impulse noise (like an exploding firecracker) on one side of the head, or a Q-tip pushed too far.
An ear-kiss is another cause, formerly undiscovered, Paul Farrell, associate director for Audiology Practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, told the network news outlet. “It is a fascinating phenomenon,” he said. “I would consider it an emerging topic in the field.”
Reiter believes that the intense suction on the eardrum pulls the chain of three tiny bones in the ear. The third bone, the stirrup-shaped stapes, then tugs on the stapedial annular ligament, causing turbulence in the fluid of the cochlea, or inner ear.
Reiter is full of horror stories of ear-kiss injuries resulting from normal everyday activities: a hairdresser sending a client off with a nice hairdo and a smack on the ear; a relative’s air-kiss going astray after a quick turn of the head; a mother seeing her little girl off to school with a loving smooch.
Still, the prevalence of the injury is unknown.
“People are going to doctors who are pooh-poohing this,” says Reiter. “One reason these people wrote to me in the first place was that they were getting nowhere. The doctors were making fun of them. They felt humiliated.”
“My granddaughter is a kindergarten teacher and I tell her never kiss any of your little tykes on the ear,” he says.
The professor told NBC News that he is preparing to submit his most recent findings to the International Journal of Audiology and the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology.
Research contact: @NBCNews