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Cause of Hearing Loss: Meningitis

To Survive and Be Deaf is a Miracle

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Updated December 22, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Meningitis. Of all the common causes of hearing loss, this one is the most frightening and the most deadly. Time and again, I have read articles about families whose child became deathly ill with meningitis, pulled through, and then they found out that the child was deaf.

Meningitis and Deafness

Meningitis, which can strike at any age, can be fatal. It is possible to save the life of a meningitis patient by administering powerful antibiotics for bacterial meningitis (antibiotics don't work for viral meningitis). These antibiotics can result in deafness, however, and the meningitis itself can also cause deafness.

Symptoms of Meningitis

The symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Rapid, high fever
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Rashes
  • Sensitivity to light
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis can kill within 48 hours or less. Fortunately, there is a vaccine for two of the three known types of meningitis. People receiving cochlear implants are required to get this vaccine.

Meningitis Statistics

How common is meningitis as a cause of hearing loss? One source of data is the Gallaudet Research Institute's Regional and National Summary of Report Data from the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth. According to the 2005-2006 study, 3.2% of deaf and hard of hearing youth nation-wide lost their hearing due to meningitis. This makes meningitis one of the leading post-natal causes of hearing loss. In addition, one source states that approximately ten percent of meningitis survivors in developed countries end up with permanent hearing loss.

Meningitis and Temporary Hearing Loss

The hearing loss caused by meningitis can also be temporary. A study reported in Archives of Diseases in Childhood looked at 124 children who were recently diagnosed with meningitis. All children were given audiological screenings as soon as possible after diagnosis, with follow-up screenings. Twenty-one were found to have hearing loss at the first screening. However, the authors found that thirteen of the patients who had hearing loss at the first screening did not have hearing loss at the time of discharge. This translated to approximately 10% of the patients having a reversible hearing loss. Only 2.4% of the patients in the study developed permanent hearing loss, and the researchers hypothesized this may have been because of how quickly the children were diagnosed and treated.

In addition, the first 48 hours of illness appeared to be when hearing loss began, and also when it was most treatable. Most of the children were sick between 24 and 48 hours, and a few actually complained that they were now deaf at the time of admission. The study's results led the authors to conclude that the 24-48 hour period is a critical time for successful reversion of the hearing loss caused by meningitis.

Susceptibility to Deafness from Meningitis

Not everyone who survives meningitis is deafened. The British Medical Journal reported on a study that found that dark-eyed people appeared to be less likely to be deafened by meningitis than lighter-eyed people. In this study, two out of 32 people deafened by meningitis had dark eyes, while the other 30 had lighter eyes. The author theorizes that this may have to do with a higher melanin content in people with darker eyes.

Support for Meningitis Survivors

Support groups are available for people who have survived meningitis:

Treatment of Hearing Loss Caused by Meningitis

Many people, particularly children, who have been deafened by meningitis can be helped by cochlear implants or hearing aids. Unfortunately, neither implants nor hearing aids were around to help one of the best-known victims of meningitis, the blind and deaf Helen Keller, who lost her vision and hearing to meningitis at the age of one and a half.

In the deaf community, some of the best-known people who have been deafened by meningitis include Gerilee Gustason, Executive Director of the SEE (Signing Exact English) Center for Deaf Children; Clifford Rowley, father of Amy Rowley, who was the child in the famous court case; and the actor C.J. Jones.

Sources:

Gallaudet Research Institute. http://research.gallaudet.edu/Demographics/

Hearing loss during bacterial meningitis. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1997; 76: 134-138. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1717058/pdf/v076p00134.pdf

Meningitis: Help Prevent It. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/features/meningococcal/

People with light eyes more likely to be deafened by meningitis. British Medical Journal. March 10, 2001. http://www.bmj.com/content/322/7286/587.1.full

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