Herpes Simplex and Hearing Loss

Herpes Simplex Type 2 Virus, a rare cause of hearing loss. Mehau Kulyk/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Viruses can cause hearing loss. One such virus is the herpes simplex virus. It is rare but possible, to acquire hearing loss as a result of this virus.

What Is Herpes Simplex?

The herpes simplex virus, also abbreviated as HSV, comes in two forms. The first, HSV type 1, usually causes cold sores on the mouth or face. However, it can also cause genital herpes. The other form, HSV type 2, usually causes genital herpes, but it can also cause mouth infections. Genital herpes is transmitted sexually.

Newborn babies can get herpes during birth or soon after (neonatal). Passing through the birth canal of an infected mother can transmit herpes to the newborn. A newborn can also get it by being kissed by someone who has an active mouth sore from a herpes outbreak.

Symptoms of Herpes in Newborns

Even though as many as 2 percent of women are infected with herpes simplex virus while pregnant, the majority of those infections will not cause any problems for their newborns. Indeed, additional statistics show that barely one in every 7,500 newborns will acquire herpes during the birth process. Risk factors for neonatal herpes transmission include primary HSV, invasive fetal monitoring, and preterm delivery.

If a newborn does become infected with herpes, the baby may have skin or mouth sores or infected eyes. A newborn may also have difficulty breathing. It is very important to treat herpes immediately because it can spread to the baby's brain and other organs or be fatal.

According to the March of Dimes, even if a newborn baby is treated for herpes, 30 percent of newborns with infections that have spread to the organs will not survive, along with 4 percent of newborns whose infections have spread to the brain. If the baby is fortunate enough to survive infections that have spread, the baby could end up with intellectual disability, seizures, vision loss, hearing impairment or other disabilities.

Treatment and Prevention

Herpes cannot be cured and can recur, causing blisters that break and scar. In adults, herpes outbreaks can be controlled with medication. If it is known that a pregnant mother has active herpes lesions, a C-section can prevent transmission of the virus to the newborn. If a newborn acquires herpes, the newborn can be treated with intravenous medication. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend treating the pregnant mother with antiviral medication prior to delivery in cases when there is a known herpes infection.  

Herpes and Hearing Loss

Herpes has been associated with the sudden hearing loss as well as newborn hearing loss. Once you have the virus it can lay dormant in your body; no one really knows why it can reactivate and cause problems. According to the journal Laryngoscope, herpes was involved in 70% of cases of viral infections that led to hearing loss. Studies have been looking at effective treatments.

In a Dutch study, researchers induced HSV-1 labyrinthitis (a known cause of hearing loss) in 12 guinea pigs. The purpose was to see if acyclovir (Zovirax) and prednisolone would be successful in treating the labyrinthitis. Three of the guinea pigs got only acyclovir; three got only prednisolone, three got both drugs, and the last three were given nothing and served as comparison "controls" for the experiment. The guinea pigs that received both drugs got more of their hearing back and also had less damage in their cochleas. Unfortunately, the results applied only to animals; studies in humans have yet to show a similar benefit.

Another study, this one from Canada, looked more closely at herpes and newborn hearing loss. The study consisted of a review of database information and literature on cases of newborns who were exposed to HSV and then monitored for hearing loss. Just five children were identified as having hearing loss subsequent to infection with HSV. The Canadian authors concluded that hearing loss in newborns who are exposed to herpes is so rare and the data so lacking that it is not sensible to screen newborns who have hearing loss for herpes.


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Updated by Melissa Karp, Au.D.