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When Medicine Hurts Your Hearing

Ototoxic drugs can be helpful for some types of illnesses, but damaging to your hearing - even in small children. A new study shows that some types of antibiotics used to treat deadly bacterial infections could put patients at high risk of lifelong hearing loss.

So-called aminoglycoside antibiotics are often given to newborns to treat meningitis, bacterial infections and other potentially life-threatening diseases. But according to the study, these drugs also risk sacrificing the patient’s ability to hear. 

Bacterial infection plus antibiotics a dangerous combination

According to a study conducted on mice at Oregon Health & Science University and published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, inflammation from the bacterial infection boosts the uptake of aminoglycosides into the inner ear, substantially raising the risk of hearing loss.

Aminoglycosides can cause what is referred to as ototoxicity, a process that kills the sensory cells in the inner ear that detect sound and motion.

In the study, healthy mice that were given the aminoglycosides were subject to a minor amount of hearing loss.

But the hearing loss was much greater in mice suffering from the kind of inflammation common among humans who are given aminoglycosides.

A terrible choice to have to make

“Currently, it’s accepted that the price some patients have to pay for surviving a life-threatening bacterial infection is the loss of their ability to hear,” said Peter Steyger, a professor of otolaryngology at the Oregon Health & Science University. 

“The costs of this incalculable loss are borne by patients and society. When infants lose their hearing, they begin a long and arduous process to learn to listen and speak. This can interfere with their educational trajectory and psychosocial development, all of which can have a dramatic impact on their quality of life.” 

Steyger urges that drug companies start working on other types of antibiotics to attack this type of severe infections. In the mean time, doctors should prescribe different drugs if possible, according to the study’s authors.

Commonly used antibiotics

According to the study, about 80 percent of the 600,000 infants admitted to neonatal intensive care units in the U.S. each year are prescribed aminoglycosides. 

The rate of hearing loss among NICU survivors is 2 to 4 percent, compared with 0.1 to 0.3 percent of full-term infants, the study said.

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