Did you hear the news? COVID-19 cases are declining and everyday life is starting to return to normal.
But maybe you did not hear the news – because you have been exposed to COVID-19. A recently published study, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s RNA virus expert Lee Gehrke and Stanford University otolaryngologist Konstantina Stankovic, links coronavirus infection to hearing loss, ringing in the ears and other problems with the inner ear.
“Our study showed evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can directly infect the inner ear,” Stankovic told a university publication.
This is not a small thing, where hearing loss and balance problems from inner ear infection sometimes turn out to be quite serious. But such problems were often overlooked at the height of the 2020-21 pandemic, Stankovic pointed out, as doctors focused on keeping acute COVID-19 patients alive.
“They were not very aware of whether [patients’] hearing was impaired or if they had dizziness, ”she said.
As the new coronavirus now enters an endemic phase, becomes less lethal and more manageable due to built-up immunity in the population and documented treatments, medical research will increasingly focus on the persistent symptoms in those who have survived bouts of COVID-19. Research points to that up to 40% of people who have recovered from the initial coronavirus infection, continue to suffer for weeks or months from sometimes disabling symptoms, such as fatigue, confused memory, and joint pain. Hearing problems seem to fall into this category.
Researchers say that in some cases, these various symptoms – known as “long COVID” – may prove to be permanent.
As for the COVID-19-related hearing problems, it is not yet known how the virus enters the inner ear. Stankovic speculates that it is migrating there from the nose. She believes there is little chance that the virus will enter the body through the outer ear.
Another recent study, which focused on COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms who had no previous hearing loss, found that “hearing loss in the COVID era is one of the new areas of concern.” Its authors, such as Gehrke and Stankovic, recommend more research to allow for “better understanding and treatment.”
– Douglas Perry