COVID-19 is known to produce a variety of health issues. But new research has revealed that it may also damage our hearing.

Experts from the University College London (UK) have linked the virus to sudden sensorineural hearing loss – where a person rapidly loses their hearing, often in just one ear.

Their report, published in the British Medical Journal, illustrates the case of a 45-year-old man who had COVID-19 and was admitted to an intensive care unit for treatment.

He left the hospital after thirty days. But a week later, he noticed tinnitus (a ringing sound) in his left ear, followed by a sudden loss in his hearing, reports the Guardian.

The man didn’t have a history of hearing loss prior to his COVID-19 diagnosis, leading researchers to conclude that his rapid deterioration resulted from the virus.

While the research is still not fully conclusive, similar examples have been found in the US, with CNN reporting the case of a woman who shared a comparable experience.

So what is sudden sensorineural hearing loss?

Often a hearing loss takes place gradually over several years or decades. But sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or SSHL for short, either takes place instantly or over a few days.

People usually witness this as soon as they wake up from a night’s sleep. You can also recognize the issue when you go to use the ear that’s affected for a purpose (e.g. listening to music).

In the period leading up to the sudden hearing loss, you might witness the swift onset of certain symptoms, such as a ringing in your ear or a lack of clarity when witnessing certain frequencies.

Importantly, as soon as you recognize this issue, you should seek medical assistance.

Roughly half of those that get SSHL will recover a partial amount or all of their hearing. But often, this is determined by how fast they have received expert assistance.

More evidence of COVID-19’s links to hearing loss

Alongside SSHL, there have been extensive reports of people getting other types of hearing loss after contracting the virus. I recently treated a patient whose experience serves as an informative anecdote.

I tested his hearing in June, only a couple of weeks before he was hospitalized for COVID-19. He already suffered from severe hearing loss, along with poor speech understanding (we call the latter “Word Recognition Scores”).

He contacted me after his release from the hospital and requested to be tested again because his hearing seemed significantly worse.

We retested his hearing in September and found that his ability to detect sounds had not changed, but his Word Recognition Scores were dramatically worse. In fact, they were almost non-existent!

My patient reported that during his hospitalization, he had asked doctors and medical staff to communicate with him using a dry-erase board, as he couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Further research needed

What caused this sharp decline in his speech understanding is unclear. But what we do know is that since his original test, the only major medical change has been his COVID-19 diagnosis.

It is evident from reports in the news that my patient is not alone. Other individuals around the world with COVID-19 are demonstrating various auditory changes.

Experts don’t know the root cause yet. But based on our knowledge of hearing mechanics, we believe these auditory symptoms are likely related to one or more of the following: a viral attack on the inner ear, lack of oxygen to the ear, or medications.

Only time will tell as more information is gained. Until then, remain safe and stay tuned for more!

If you’re concerned about hearing loss, either following a COVID-19 diagnosis or not, please don’t hesitate to call our team at (256) 319-4327. We’re ready to help you now!

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Dr. Susan Sheehy

Dr. Sheehy earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in audiology at the University of Alabama before beginning her career as a clinical audiologist in Huntsville. In 2005, she received her doctorate in audiology from Salus University. Dr. Sheehy is one of a specialized subset of audiologists certified in tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). By appointment from the governor, she has served as a member and chairperson of the Alabama Board of Examiners in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.
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