Auditory symptoms and COVID-19: Is there a link?

Over the course of the last year, our understanding of COVID-19’s temporary and permanent effects on our health has evolved. One of the questions that remains without a clear answer is: Does COVID-19 affect the auditory system?

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“It‘s well known that viral infections can result in auditory symptoms such as hearing loss and tinnitus; however, our understanding of the exact mechanism behind this relationship continues to evolve over time,” said Dr. Alex Sweeney, neurotologist and director of the Center for Hearing and Balance  in the Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Baylor. “Additionally, loss of smell has been described as a relatively common symptom of COVID-19, and because of this association, we have often been asked if other parts of the nervous system, including hearing, can be affected by the infection.”

Subjective tinnitus is an involuntary perception of sound that can only be perceived by the person experiencing it. It can sound like a constant ringing, buzzing, humming, or hissing, and it ranges in volume from barely audible to loud enough to be noticeable even with background noise.

According to Dr. Deyanira Gonzalez, an audiologist in the department, patients who have come to her for a hearing evaluation reporting hearing loss or tinnitus in association with COVID-19 have expressed a variability in severity and duration. Some patients have reported tinnitus lasting days, while others experienced symptoms for weeks after getting COVID-19.

“I have had tinnitus since childhood and went through COVID-19 last year, which temporarily increased the perception and ‘loudness’ of my own tinnitus for about a week before going back to ‘normal’,” Gonzalez said. “But not everyone who has gotten COVID-19 has reported auditory symptoms, and it’s been difficult to determine if the onset of these symptoms was truly a result of COVID-19 or other factors such as a pre-existing hearing loss, noise exposure or middle ear infections.”

Gonzalez and Sweeney advise that anyone experiencing new tinnitus or hearing loss should see an audiologist and ENT surgeon.

“To best treat tinnitus, we need to know what’s causing it,” Gonzalez said. “Steroids can be used to treat sudden tinnitus or hearing loss. Other treatments include counseling known as tinnitus retraining therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and sound generator hearing aids.”

Dr. Sweeney is an assistant professor and the Dorothy L. McGee Endowed Chair in the Bobby R. Alford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. He is also an assistant professor of neurosurgery.

 To see a Baylor Medicine audiologist or ENT, contact the Center for Hearing and Balance at 713-798-5900 for an appointment.

-By Molly Chiu

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