COVID-19 and hearing loss: What we know
COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has now been linked to many long-term complications, including heart damage, lung damage and neurological disorders. One emerging area of research is whether hearing loss and tinnitus can result from coronavirus infection—either as a symptom or as a complication days or weeks later.
We do know that many different types of viral and bacterial infections can cause sudden hearing loss. But older coronaviruses that triggered epidemics, such as SARS and MERS, did not appear to cause hearing problems. What about SARS-CoV-2, the current coronavirus that's causing a global pandemic? We dive into the latest research, below.
Coronavirus and hearing loss
Sudden hearing loss as a symptom:
Based on published case reports, it appears that sudden hearing loss is rarely a symptom of coronavirus onset.
In one report, several Iranian patients reported hearing loss in one ear, as well as vertigo. In another report about sudden sensorineural hearing loss and COVID-19, one Egyptian man with no other coronavirus symptoms developed sudden hearing loss, and then tested positive for coronavirus.
But beyond those reports, not much has been published by researchers.
Note: Sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency. Seek medical attention if you experience sudden hearing loss in one ear. The faster you get treatment, the more likely you'll get your hearing back.
Hearing loss as a complication of coronavirus infection:
What does appear to be a little more common (though still rare) is developing hearing loss or tinnitus as a complication of COVID-19 infection, meaning it's not part of the initial onset of symptoms but develops later.
So far, there's just not much published research on this topic, though. Autopsy reports have detected the virus in the middle ear bones. And in this case report, a German man experienced acute profound hearing loss after developing COVID-19 pneumonia.
Perhaps most enlightening so far are the results of a UK survey, which found that nearly 1 out of 10 coronavirus patients self-reported either hearing loss or tinnitus 8 weeks later. That was surprising, the authors noted, but they also pointed out that the hearing loss and tinnitus could be unrelated or indirectly related (such as a medication side effect).
In other words, more research on the long-term auditory consequences of coronavirus is vitally needed.
"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," state the authors of a systematic review on this topic.
Hearing loss or tinnitus as a side effect of medication used to treat coronavirus:
What is well-known: Some medications used to treat the coronavirus carry a relatively high risk of hearing loss, tinnitus or vertigo as a side effect. This is known as "ototoxicity." These drugs include quinine, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
"These antiviral medications have known adverse events, including tinnitus and hearing loss, and the symptoms may be misdiagnosed as being caused by COVID-19," stated the authors of the systematic review mentioned above.
More research is needed before we fully understand how the coronavirus affects hearing and balance. We still don't know to what extent the coronavirus causes hearing loss, tinnitus or balance problems.
Note: Information about the coronavirus pandemic is quickly evolving. If you have any concerns about coronavirus and your hearing, seek a healthcare provider's guidance.
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Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing