Study: COVID Can Infect the Inner Ear

A masked doctor using a pen light to look into the ear of an older white man with a white face mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study has shown how COVID-19 can infect the inner ear.
  • Scientists say the study's findings demonstrate why some people develop ear-related issues after having COVID-19.
  • Ear-related health concerns related to COVID-19 are still being explored by researchers.

COVID-19 can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, it can even lead to ear-related symptoms like hearing loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness, and balance issues. Reports of these symptoms have led researchers to suspect that the virus could infect the inner ear.

Now, a new study from MIT and Massachusetts Eye and Ear has found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, does indeed have the ability to get into the ear and cause infection.

What the Study Found

The study, which was published in the journal Communications Medicine, examined inner ear tissue from 10 COVID-19 patients with ear symptoms such as hearing loss, balance issues, and ringing in the ears (also known as tinnitus). The researchers also used cellular models and mouse inner ear tissue. 

The researchers discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the inner ear’s cells and even its hair cells, which help with hearing and balance. They also found that the pattern of infection that was seen with human inner ear tissue was consistent with the symptoms reported by patients.

By using human and mouse inner ear tissue as well as generated cellular models, the researchers were able to show how it’s possible for SARS-CoV-2 to get into the inner ear and infect certain parts of it.

Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that “inner ear infection may underlie COVID-19-associated problems with hearing and balance."

COVID Ear Symptoms

Currently, there are no ear-related symptoms on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s list of COVID-19 symptoms, which includes:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

However, the CDC also states that its list “does not include all possible symptoms.” Furthermore, the organization also notes that dizziness on standing is a possible symptom of long COVID. 

John Sellick, DO

Tinnitus, in particular, seems to be fairly common with long-haulers. The question is, is this going to resolve or not?

— John Sellick, DO

There have been several case reports of patients developing tinnitus after being sick with COVID-19, including one of a 35-year-old woman in Qatar who developed hearing loss and tinnitus when she had the virus. Her symptoms persisted even after she recovered from the virus and hearing tests confirmed that she had hearing loss at low frequencies in her left ear. 

A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Audiology in March 2021 analyzed data from 28 case reports and 28 cross-sectional studies. The results indicated that 7.6% of patients with COVID-19 had hearing loss, 14.8% experienced tinnitus, and 7.2% had vertigo after having the virus.

John Sellick, DO, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY, tells Verywell that “Tinnitus, in particular, seems to be fairly common with long-haulers. The question is, is this going to resolve or not?”

Other Causes of Ear Infections

Scott Shapiro, MD, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Verywell that other viruses, like those that cause colds, the flu, and measles and mumps, can all infect the inner ear as well.

According to infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “the receptor that SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells is widespread, so it’s not surprising to see that infection of the cells of the inner ear is possible.

Adalja says that many viruses "are able to cause disease in the inner ear but it is unclear how many do it through direct viral infection.”

Shapiro says that while the findings of the new study are “not surprising,” they're still important because they’re the first to prove that COVID-19 can affect this part of the ear. "We see a lot of patients that report ear-related symptoms after having COVID-19," says Shapiro. "But we’ve never been able to say mechanistically that the virus actually gets into the cells of the inner ear."

When to See Your Doctor

If you have ear symptoms, Shapiro recommends seeing your primary care physician—especially if you have hearing loss or your symptoms are not getting better because in this case, “it’s usually inner ear hearing loss and it’s time-sensitive to treat."

However, Shapiro also points out that it can be “hard for doctors to pin" ear symptoms on COVID, partly because “tinnitus and hearing loss are common” even in people who haven't had the virus recently. That’s why he recommends getting evaluated if you have any hearing changes.

Sellick says that the link between ear-related issues and COVID-19 “is another reason to get vaccinated,” and reminds folks that “having ear-related issues is not a good thing.”

What This Means For You

Scientists have now determined that it's possible for the virus that causes COVID-19 to infect the inner ear, which might explain why some people who get the virus have ear-related symptoms.

That said, there are also other viruses and causes of ear symptoms. If you have ear-related symptoms after having COVID, make sure to see your doctor. They can determine the cause of your symptoms and recommend the most appropriate treamtent.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jeong M, Ocwieja KE, Han D, et al. Direct SARS-CoV-2 infection of the human inner ear may underlie COVID-19-associated audiovestibular dysfunctionCommunications Medicine. 2021;1(1):44. doi:10.1038/s43856-021-00044-w.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of COVID-19.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Post COVID conditions.

  4. Chirakkal P, Al Hail AN, Zada N, Vijayakumar DS. COVID-19 and TinnitusEar Nose Throat Journal. 2021;100(2_suppl):160S-162S. doi:10.1177/0145561320974849

  5. Almufarrij I, Munro KJ. One year on: an updated systematic review of SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 and audio-vestibular symptomsInternational Journal of Audiology. Published online March 22, 2021:1-11. doi:10.1080/14992027.2021.1896793

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.