Meningitis & Hearing Loss

Typical signs of meningitis are fever, headache, and a stiff neck. These early symptoms may be mistaken for a cold or flu and ignored. Meningitis develops because of infection that causes inflammation in the meninges or membranes of the spinal cord. Bacteria, viruses, or fungus may cause infection or inflammation. While some cases of meningitis may resolve on its own in about two weeks, if left untreated, meningitis can become life threatening and lead to serious complications within the nervous system. Meningitis complications may include permanent hearing loss.

Hearing loss in children is often caused by bacterial illnesses such as meningitis. It is estimated that as many as ten percent of children stricken with bacterial meningitis will become deaf to some degree following the illness. Hearing loss causes related to infection and medication is higher among young children due in part to their still developing nervous systems. The hearing loss causes involved with meningitis complicates result from the disease, the body’s reaction to the disease during the inflammation process, the type of meningitis involved as well as the age of the patient. Children with pneumococcal meningitis are at highest risk of becoming deaf. With pneumococcal meningitis, a baby or young child can become deaf within days of the illness. Sensorineural hearing loss occurs due to damage to nerve hairs within the cochlea. Unlike conductive hearing loss which often responds well to treatment, sensorineural hearing loss is permanent.

While there is a vaccine to prevent some types of meningitis, there are strains of bacterial meningitis that are not preventable with a vaccine. The two strains are E coli meningitis and the group B streptococcal meningitis. Young children are at risk for hearing loss months after recovering from the meningitis. Research shows as many as seventy-two percent of young children who have survived bacterial meningitis will experience sudden hearing loss before they are three years old. Studies show that hearing loss causes delays in language and social skills in children of this age. Hearing should be screened closely in children who have recovered from meningitis. Young children may not show obvious signs of sudden hearing loss. More than twenty percent of young children, who have survived meningitis before they begin to speak, are never evaluated for impaired hearing. This places them at a disadvantage and prevents them from the full benefits that early diagnosis and interventions have to offer. Older children, who are already speaking, may experience unilateral sensorineural hearing loss that may develop gradually. Even a sudden hearing loss may not be noticed if it affects just one ear. It is recommended that all children have their hearing tested after recovering from meningitis and be reevaluated frequently for at least six months to detect any hearing loss as soon as possible.

Meningitis statistics show that children under the age of five are at risk for bacterial meningitis. Vaccines have lowered the risk. However, parents need to remember that some types of bacterial meningitis are not vaccine preventable. Meningitis results from a spread of bacteria responsible for other contagious diseases such as colds, flu, or coming in contact with someone who has meningitis.  Hearing defects resulting from meningitis cannot always be avoided. Knowing that nerve deafness  or sensorineural impairment is common after meningitis alerts parents to the need to monitor hearing in children after recovery from this disease. Hearing loss due to problems in the middle ear is conductive hearing loss.Infections within the middle ear may cause temporary deafness that resolves when the infection is promptly treated. If a middle ear infection is not treated as soon as possible, it could lead to permanent conductive hearing loss or spread to the inner ear leading to spatial hearing loss as nerve deafness occurs. Hearing disabilities involving nerve deafness cannot be cured.

While the vaccine for haemophilus influenze Hib has significantly lowered the cases of Hib meningitis, other forms of bacterial meningitis remain a risk. Seventy percent of all bacterial meningitis still occurs in young children under the age of five. College students or individuals with compromised immune systems are also at increased risk of meningitis. Knowing the signs of meningitis can help you recognize symptoms and seek out prompt evaluation and treatment. The early treatment is started, the greater the chance to reduce the risk of permanent deafness or complications brought about from this disease.

Remember that these symptoms are also common in other illnesses, however when in doubt, prompt evaluation by your doctor is the only way to rule out meningitis. Both viral and bacterial meningitis present the same symptoms. Only blood work can rule out bacterial meningitis that carries a high risk of deafness. Babies can lose their hearing within days if not promptly diagnosed and treated. Do not take chances.

If your baby shows any of the following symptoms, contact your pediatrician immediately.

  • Refusal of food
  • Appears unusually pale or blotch
  • Has a red pin prick looking rash
  • Vomiting
  • High fever with cold hands and feet
  • Constant whimpering
  • Arching back and retracting neck
  • High pitched crying
  • Continued fussiness when held
  • Staring blankly

Symptoms of meningitis in older children and adults include:

  • Vomiting
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Painfully stiff neck
  • Inability to curl up in bed in a nose to knees position
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Irritability
  • Drowsiness
  • Left untreated delirium, seizures, and coma may occur.

While viral meningitis usually runs a two week course and resolves on its own, without tests there is no way to be sure what type of meningitis you may have or been exposed to. Treat all possible signs of meningitis seriously and be evaluated as soon as symptoms arise. Prompt evaluation and treatment reduces the risk of permanent deafness due to meningitis complications.