COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has changed the way we interact in the world. While in the US the spread of the virus is slowing down, we are constantly in question of how long this will last, leaving us wondering if this is the new normal. We are continually learning more about this virus and its long term effects on health. So far, researchers have found long term health complications affecting the heart, lungs and brain. As hearing care specialists, we are particularly interested in what, if any, symptomatic or long term effects COVID-19 can have on hearing health.
Sudden Hearing Loss as a Preliminary Symptom
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is an unexplained, rapid loss of hearing—most often in one ear—all at once or over several days. In rare cases, during the course of the pandemic, SSHL has been an onset symptom of COVID-19.
One incident in June 2020 reported several patients in Iran with SSHL in one ear and suffering from vertigo, previous to being diagnosed with COVID-19. A separate account found an individual in Egypt, who had no other symptoms of coronavirus, except for SSHL, and tested positive for the virus. Aside from these isolated accounts not much has been published on the topic, but if you do experience SSHL please visit a doctor immediately and take proper precautions.
COVID-19 and Lasting Hearing Loss
While this is still a rather rare side effect of coronavirus, it is more common than SSHL as a symptom. In some recorded cases people who survived COVID-19 were left with hearing loss, tinnitus or dizziness, in the aftermath. Often these symptoms developed days to weeks after the infection had cleared. While this data is alarming, researchers emphasize that there is a lack of “high-quality studies” on this topic.
Pooled data on auditory complications released in February 2021 found:
- 7.6% of people report hearing loss
- 14.8% report tinnitus
- 7.2% report vertigo
Does COVID-19 Damage the Auditory System?
A study from Israel examined a small collection of 16 patients, half, who had tested positive for coronavirus and half who were not. The study found no difference in the two separate groups when examining for auditory nerve damage. There is clearly more need for a larger and more diverse testing pool to have more reliable answers to COVID-19 effects on the auditory nerve, but for now the effects appear mostly benign.
Tinnitus and COVID-19
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is closely connected to hearing loss and can be brought on and amplified by stress. While many patients who have been infected with COVID-19 have reported tinnitus symptoms, it is unclear if this is due to the virus or to the stress which is caused by the diagnosis and quarantine. Research has found that for the most part the two conditions are not intrinsically linked.
More Studies Needed
As we are rapidly learning more about this highly contagious strain of coronavirus and its effects, more will be understood in time. In the meantime, we are scrambling to find out as much information as possible. One promising study from the UK found that nearly 1 out of 10 coronavirus patients self-reported either hearing loss or tinnitus 8 weeks after infection to COVID. While this condition could be connected to coronavirus, it could also be due in part to ototoxic medication used to treat symptoms or the stress brought on by the highly stigmatized virus.
“High-quality studies are needed to investigate the acute effects of COVID-19, as well as for understanding long-term risks, on the audio-vestibular system,” explained Kevin J Munro and Kai Uus, the authors of a June 2020 rapid systematic review on this topic.
Hearing Loss and Vaccines
With the arrival and wide distribution of coronavirus vaccines in early 2021 we have experienced a little relief from a difficult winter of quarantine and high numbers of infections. However, the testing of the vaccines has been rushed in order to widely distribute them as fast as possible. This means that there is still much to learn about side effects of the vaccines. The good news is that currently there has been no link found between sudden hearing loss and vaccination. According to researchers from the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the rate of sudden hearing loss seems to be lower among vaccinated people. What we can take away from this is that while there has been some slight connection between hearing damage and COVID-19 much research is required to fully understand it’s extent.