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  • Writer's pictureNick Oldham

Meningitis and Hearing Loss in Children

a little girl has earache on white background

Hearing loss can occur months after recovering from meningitis. Careful follow-up with hearing tests is important to prevent further damage to hearing.

Hearing loss is a common complication of childhood meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection that occurs when the protective membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord gets inflamed. In fact, says Jose Munoz, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY, hearing loss occurs in 15 to 30 percent of kids with bacterial meningitis.

Inflammation around the brain caused by meningitis can damage the nerve that travels through a narrow passageway between the ear and brain, leading to hearing loss. “[The inflammation] can kill the nerve that transmits what happens in your ear to your brain,” Dr. Munoz explains.

The first 24 to 48 hours of illness is critical for successful reversion of the hearing loss caused by meningitis, according to a study from the Archives of Diseases in Childhood. If a child receives a dose of steroids at the beginning of meningitis treatment, the risk of hearing loss can be reduced, Munoz explains. As with most conditions, “early diagnosis [of meningitis] is likely to lead to a better outcome,” he says.

Hearing loss can develop later, after recovery from the infection. As a result, children who have had meningitis should undergo regular hearing tests to detect any possible problems caused by the infection.

Follow-Up Care for Meningitis-Related Hearing Loss

All children with meningitis are tested as soon as they’re well enough, says Mindy Schmelzer, AuD, an audiologist who also works at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. If they pass the hearing test, they’ll probably be tested every three months for the first year, says Dr. Schmelzer. If there’s no change in their hearing at the end of the year, it’s unlikely the infection will cause hearing loss in the future.

If a child does have hearing loss during that first test, there’s the possibility that the hearing loss could be progressive, Schmelzer says. In that case, the child will be tested every three to four weeks for the first six months, then every other month for another six months, she says. After that, the child will need hearing tests every six months until age 18. The child will also need to see an otologist, a doctor who specializes in ear problems, who will look for physical changes in the inner ear.

For older children, the hearing test involves playing sounds through earphones and asking the child to report the sounds he or she hears, Munoz says. In younger children, audiologists may use a method involving an electronic device that puts sounds in the ear and an electrode on the scalp that detects whether the sounds are being transmitted, he says.

Recognizing the Signs of Hearing Loss at Home

In the meantime, it’s a good idea to look for symptoms of hearing loss in your child at home. Call your child’s doctor if you notice that your child doesn’t respond when you call his or her name or fails to react to loud noises, such as a door slamming. Even newborn babies will jump at the sound of a loud noise.

Hearing Loss Treatments

If hearing loss is partial, your child may need a hearing aid, Munoz says. If the hearing loss is more profound, you may have to consider a cochlear implant.

Hearing loss is a common complication of meningitis; but with early meningitis diagnosis and treatment your child can make a full recovery, with little to no permanent hearing loss.

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