Is hearing loss from a virus permanent?

Learn which viral infections affect your hearing and when you should see a doctor.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Hearing loss by a virus is either congenital or acquired — Congenital hearing loss occurs at birth, while acquired hearing loss occurs later in life as a result of the viral infection.
  • Sudden hearing loss (SHL) affects nearly 70,000 people in the U.S. each year — This is actually a conservative estimate because SHL is often underdiagnosed and has a variety of causes.
  • There are many factors at play — No two types of hearing loss are the same, so speaking with your doctor or audiologist about your range of symptoms is important for a correct diagnosis.

It’s an important question to ask: is hearing loss from a virus permanent? Hearing loss is often separated into two general categories: conductive and sensorineural. Different viral infections can be responsible for each type of hearing loss.

Conductive hearing loss occurs when sound is blocked from traveling from the outside to the inner ear by something like wax or fluid in the middle ear. The problem here lies in the delivery of sound. Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), on the other hand, occurs when there is damage to the hair cells or auditory nerve in the inner ear. In this case, the sound waves are unable to be converted into neural signals for the brain to understand.

Types of viruses that cause hearing loss

While ear infections are quite common, especially in children, they are not the only virus that can negatively affect ears and hearing. Other illnesses can cause inflammation and fluid to form in the middle ear, which can lead to deafness or difficulty hearing. Other viruses damage the cochlea, which is home to the hair cells that help detect sound. Read on for a few of the most common viral infections that can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.

Influenza virus

A flu diagnosis can wreak havoc on the sinus system. Congestion from influenza blocks the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the throat to the middle ear. This blockage is what causes some people to lose their hearing when they are sick with the flu. Related symptoms include ear pressure, pain, and balance issues all due to inflammation or a buildup of fluid.

Meningitis

Viral meningitis is not typically associated with deafness. However, bacterial meningitis can cause slow moving ossification of the inner ear, which leads to severe hearing loss or deafness. Patients with ossification are typically not candidates for cochlear implants, as hearing loss patients with no ossification are. Early identification and treatment are critical.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV)

CMV is a viral infection that is related to herpes. There are few symptoms presented with the infection in adults, and many people don’t even know they have it. However, a pregnant person with active CMV can pass it on to their infant in the form of congenital CMV at birth.

Congenital CMV is somewhat common, affecting one in every 200 babies born in the U.S. About one in five of those babies will experience symptoms of the illness, one of which is hearing loss. As of 2020, CMV was responsible for between 20%-25% of all congenitally acquired hearing loss cases. Infants that test positive for congenital CMV may be given treatment in the form of an antiviral medication, which is thought to improve their hearing outcome.

Mumps virus

Another somewhat common viral infection, the mumps virus belongs to the same viral family as measles. Like other respiratory infections, mumps causes swelling and inflammation in glands and sinuses. Most people recover from mumps with no long-term effects; however, some severe cases can lead to hearing loss. This is because the virus attacks the cochlea, the spiral-shaped bone in the inner ear responsible for translating sound vibrations. While hearing loss from a mumps infection is rare and typically occurs in one ear, the damage is often permanent.

Rubella virus

Usually a mild viral infection, rubella usually presents in the form of a rash and swollen lymph glands. Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) is more serious and occurs when a pregnant person passes on the virus to the baby in the womb. CRS can cause serious health complications to the baby, and sensorineural hearing loss occurs in 60% of cases. The extent of the hearing loss is often evident by the time the child is between 6-12 months of age.

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV)

A viral infection hosted and transmitted by rodents, LCMV is found in about 5% of house mice in the United States. The virus is only passed from rodents to humans or congenitally from a pregnant person to their infant. Congenital LCMV can cause sensorineural hearing loss, along with other serious symptoms including seizures, developmental delays, and vision loss.

Is hearing loss from a virus permanent?

The extent and severity of hearing loss from a viral infection is dependent on several factors. In most instances, early intervention is the key to proper treatment and recovery from hearing loss. Continue reading for more factors that influence the severity of hearing loss from a virus.

Age at infection

The age at which a patient contracts a viral infection will impact the severity of their symptoms. Many of the viral infections mentioned here have effective vaccines that protect against infection. However, if the child is too young to be vaccinated, they are at risk. And some viral infections, such as measles and mumps, pose a higher risk for young children. Pregnant people and children under age 5 are the most vulnerable groups to experience severe complications from many viruses.

Severity of infection

Whether a patient becomes very sick with a viral infection can depend on factors such as their overall health, their vaccination status for that virus, and how early into their sickness they seek treatment. This is evident each year with the flu, as it is fatal to some and presents mildly for others.

Type of virus

Viral infections can cause both sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is more likely to cause long-term hearing loss since the virus damages the cochlear or the auditory nerve. Viruses that cause conductive hearing loss are less serious and are less likely to result in permanent damage.

Diagnosis and treatment

Doctors encourage anyone experiencing sudden hearing loss, whether from a virus or not, to seek treatment right away. Visiting your healthcare provider within the first 48 to 72 hours after symptoms begin gives patients the best chance to recover their hearing. Additionally, be sure you are up to date on your preventative vaccines, which will guard against viral infections.

Screening for viral infections in patients with hearing loss

Your doctor will review all of your systems, in addition to the hearing loss, to get a better picture of what may be causing it. Examining the ear, nose, and throat, listening to your lungs, and checking for swollen glands are all common practices when trying to pinpoint if a virus is responsible for your sudden loss of hearing. Your doctor may also perform a hearing test to better assess your condition.

Antiviral medications

Many viral and bacterial infections are treated by prescription or over-the-counter medication. However, there are also antiviral medicines used to treat sudden sensorineural hearing loss when the cause is unknown. These medications are often used together with steroid injections.

Steroids

In some cases, doctors treat sudden hearing loss with corticosteroids through either tablets or injections. The oral form, often prednisone, is usually prescribed for about two weeks. The injectable version is administered at your doctor’s office, typically done in a series of injections spread over a few weeks. The injections often have few or no side effects; however, they are uncomfortable and require a trip to the office. Some doctors prescribe both oral and injectable steroids to speed up recovery time.

Rehabilitation and hearing support devices

Those experiencing long-term hearing loss should visit an audiologist for an in-depth assessment. Audiologists can administer a diagnostic hearing test and talk about hearing aid options. They may also offer adult audiological rehabilitation Trusted SourceAmerican Speech-Language Hearing Associationadult audiological rehabilitationsGo to source .

As with many illnesses, early treatment is important for your diagnosis and potential recovery. Don’t wait to talk to your doctor upon the first symptoms of sudden hearing loss.

Frequently asked questions

How do viruses cause hearing loss?

Some viral infections cause inflammation or fluid to block sound from moving through the middle ear. Other infections attack parts of the inner ear, causing hair cells to break down.

What is the most common cause of viral hearing loss?

Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is responsible for up to 40% of congenitally acquired hearing loss cases, making it the most common virus responsible for hearing loss in children and infants.

Can RSV cause hearing loss?

Yes, respiratory infections can cause hearing loss due to mucus and fluid in the ear canal. This loss of hearing is often temporary and typically resolves when the patient recovers from the virus.

What is acute hearing loss?

This is another term for sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), which occurs when a patient experiences rapid hearing loss unexpectedly and often due to a virus.

Can a viral ear infection cause tinnitus?

Yes, ear infections can cause a loss of hearing, ear pain, and tinnitus (ringing in your ears).