- A strange new symptom of coronavirus puzzles doctors, who still cannot explain how and why the pathogen works.
- Some patients who test positive for coronavirus report ringing in the ears, sometimes followed by hearing loss.
- Hearing may return after steroid treatment, but the ringing may remain.
- Doctors believe that the virus affects the ear through small blood vessels, as COVID-19 is known to cause blood clots in the body.
The breadth of research targeting the new coronavirus is one of the highlights of the pandemic. The virus is still winning and we can watch for more than a year until the pandemic is defeated, but scientists have made tremendous progress at an incredible pace. The virus was rapidly sequenced, and geneticists proved that SARS-CoV-2 evolved naturally in animals before jumping into humans. Also, the early availability of the genome allowed the first attempts at a vaccine against COVID-1
Some patients report ringing in the ears after infection with the new pathogen, which can lead to temporary or even permanent hearing loss. The first reports of this frightening symptom appeared in the summer, as UK researchers published the findings of their study detailing the condition.
Many patients with COVID-19 experienced ringing in the ears, followed by hearing loss. CNN details two such cases over the weekend, including 42-year-old Meredith Harel.
“It’s like someone pushed a switch,” she said CNN about the sudden hearing loss in her right ear in July, which started ringing before she realized she couldn’t hear anything from that ear at all. Her positive diagnosis came a week later when she tested for COVID-19. She has no other symptoms of infection with the new coronavirus, but an otolaryngologist told her that the virus was probably to blame for the hearing problems.
The symptom can occur even in younger patients. A 23-year-old student lost 70-80% of his hearing in his left ear after catching a covid. Liam also has other symptoms, including fever, headache and fatigue. Tinnitus arrived as he began to feel better after weeks of symptoms.
High doses of steroids (such as dexamethasone), which are already known to be effective against the virus, can help. They worked for Liam, who can now hear everything except the high tones – his tinnitus is still there and may never go away. But steroids may not make the problem go away in all patients. Harel also takes steroids, but the treatment does not work. The doctors told her she was unlikely to regain her hearing and would need a hearing aid. Her tinnitus may also not go away.
Doctors still cannot fully explain how the virus affects the inner ear. Other viruses such as measles, mumps and meningitis have similar effects on the ear.
One way to check if the virus is attacking the inner ear is to perform a biopsy, but this is a risky procedure that can damage the tissue. The Johns Hopkins Medicine team, led by Dr. Matthew Stewart, performed autopsies on three patients who died from complications of COVID-19. They found the virus in the middle ear and the mastoid bone, which is just behind the ear.
“Personally, I am suspicious [the novel coronavirus] it has the potential to be worse, ”Stewart said CNN. He suspects that the culprit is blood clotting. Blood clotting is a dangerous symptom of COVID-19 that can cause strokes and heart attacks. The same can happen in the small blood vessels in the inner ear. The full study is available at this link.
Kevin Munro, the researcher, co-author of an earlier study from the UK, believes the theory makes sense. “The capillaries in the inner ear are the smallest in the human body, so it won’t take long to block them,” he said. Munro and his team plan to conduct larger studies on hearing loss as a result of COVID-19.