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?
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).
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.
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.