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Did you know that the flu can lead to hearing loss? Here's how it happens, and what symptoms you need to watch out for.

Do you still think of the flu as an annoyance rather than a potentially very serious and even deadly disease? Think again. Even otherwise healthy people can suffer complications when they catch influenza, and that includes hearing loss. 

What is sensorineural hearing loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL for short, and when you lose your hearing completely, it can also be called sensorineural deafness) is a kind of hearing loss that results after damage to the inner ear or the nerves that help your ears and brain communicate. In some cases, brain damage can also be the culprit.

While you may never heard the term sensorineural hearing loss before, it's actually the most frequent cause of permanent hearing loss. Unfortunately, surgery and medications are unlikely to be able to reserve the damage that led to this kind of hearing loss, though patients may find that hearing aids help them and cochlear implants are possible in some cases. 

Some people are born with sensorineural hearing loss as the result of genetics or prenatal infections in the womb, but when it strikes later in life, causes include: 

  • Being exposed to very loud sounds, such as at concerts or in the workplace, for prolonged periods of time.
  • Certain underlying diseases, such as tumors near the brain or ear, immune conditions, and an ear condition called Ménière disease. 
  • The normal aging process. 
  • Certain medications. 
  • Injury (to the ear or the head). 
Viral and bacterial infections can also induce sensorineural hearing loss — these include mumps and measles, meningitis, and scarlet fever. It's less well-known that influenza, and even a common cold, can also lead to hearing loss. How can this happen?

Can the flu cause sensorineural hearing loss? Yes, indirectly

Catching the flu makes your body more susceptible to secondary infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterium that is more well-known for having the ability to cause meningitis, pneumonia, and sepsis but that can also lead to sinus infections and otitis media — a middle ear infection. Other bacteria, like Moraxella catarrhalis and Haemophilus influenzae, can also be responsible. The system-wide inflammation you suffer from when you have a flu sets this process in motion. 

If you end up with a middle ear infection after the flu, symptoms may include:

  • Pain around the ear as well as feelings of general malaise (this may be accompanied by diarrhea and throwing up).
  • A "full", muffled feeling in the ear. 
  • Hearing loss. 
While middle ear infections will often clear up on their own, see your doctor if you don't notice any improvements or your symptoms get worse — you may require antibiotics. People who suddenly can't hear after they caught a flu — not just slightly affected hearing because of nasal and sinus congestion, but real hearing loss — should seek immediate medical attention. Getting a middle ear infection after the flu can lead to the mechanisms that can ultimately cause sensorineural hearing loss. 

It is important to be aware of this, because middle ear infections aren't rare after influenza — research shows that between 50 and 70 percent of middle ear infections follow an upper respiratory tract infection (like the flu) and over a third of patients affected by upper respiratory infections may develop otitis media. This is especially likely in very young children up to the age of 18 months, but older children, teens, and adults can develop middle ear infections because of the flu as well. 

Sensorineural hearing loss: Symptoms to watch out for

If you're suffering hearing loss after influenza (and a suspected ear infection), acting fast is key. See your doctor immediately if you notice:

  • Since sensorineural hearing loss after a respiratory infection tends to affect one ear, sounds may appear to be amplified in the unaffected ear. 
  • You can't hear well — you may notice this when you are in loud spaces, trying to follow conversations, or because other people are able to hear more high-pitched sounds that you now cannot. 
  • People with sensorineural hearing loss may also suffer from tinnitus, or ringing in the ear. 
  • In some cases, you'll feel dizzy or have trouble keeping your balance. 

Prevention: Avoid the flu, reduce your risk of middle ear infections and sensorineural hearing loss

The flu can cause numerous complications as well as just being really quite unpleasant in its own right. Though your overall risk of ending up with any of these complications may be low if you're otherwise a healthy person, it's not zero. Though washing your hands frequently, staying away from crowded spaces during the flu season, and avoiding sick people are indeed steps that reduce your risk of catching influenza, there's also a simpler and more effective step you can take — getting vaccinated.

The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone over the age of six months, and because flu strains change from year to year, you need a new vaccine at the beginning of every season. This quick procedure doesn't guarantee you won't get the flu, but it does greatly cut your risk and also means your illness will be milder and last less long if you do get it. By avoiding the flu, you also avoid any complications that can arise from it — so being vaccinated against the flu can literally save your life as well as your hearing. Hear, hear? 

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