Psst! Covid Can Cause Hearing Loss, Pass It On
Seven days into a Covid infection, my world suddenly grew silent. So I did some digging. Here's what I found out.
Look, I wish my body didn’t have to be the frequent anecdotal evidence example and freak outlier when it comes to all the mysterious ways the human body can break down and malfunction, but this seems to be my lot in life, so here we are. It’s not like I was given a choice. I mean, vaginal cuff dehiscence? Adenomyosis? Genitourinary syndrome of menopause? POTS? (Etc., etc.) I can’t even pronounce them, let alone did I even know about them, and in my long mental list of possible ways to suffer or die—cancer, heart attack, elevator malfunction, shark1—these would not have made the cut.
But if my role in life is to be a foghorn to others, so be it. I can think of worse ways to pass the time. So let’s blow that horn, kids, shall we? LOUDLY! Because otherwise, I won’t hear it. At all.
Let me explain.
Some stories, like this one, I publish for free as a public service. But this is a reader-supported publication. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber if you can afford the $5 a month/$50 a year. If you can’t, particularly my single/solo mother readers out there, I’ve got you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, & I’ll hook you up with a free sub.
Last week, on day seven of my latest Covid infection, I turned on my shower and realized I could not hear the water. A week earlier—the same Friday those of us born with uteri in this godforsaken Christian theocracy lost control over our bodily autonomy—I’d come down with a 102.1 temperature. I tested negative for Covid all weekend, which lead the doc at the urgent care where I went to get a PCR (also negative) to opine that I might simply be having a psychosomatic reaction to the news. I loved the audacity of that theory so much, I went home and wrote about it. But of course by Monday morning I was testing positive for Covid, so no.
Most likely, given the timeline and my propensity for taking Covid precautions, I caught the virus flying home from a business trip to Michigan a few days prior. I was practically the only one on that plane dutifully wearing a mask. Don’t get me started.
All was well in Covid land—not well well but par-for-the-course Covid well, meaning I did end up making one four-hour visit to the emergency room Monday night when my SpO2 level dropped down to 93, and my doctor made me go—but by Thursday morning my oxygen saturation was back to normal, and I was just sick and tired and coughing and stuffy-headed and all the other lovely attributes that go along with this nasty virus which we’ll never get rid of, because no one will wear a fucking mask on a plane.
So anyway, Thursday morning, after turning on the shower, I turned my back on said shower to wait for it to get hot and heard…nothing. At first I thought, wait, did I forget to turn on the shower? But no. Water was definitely shooting out of the nozzle. With zero sound effects. Panicking, I cranked up “Gimme Shelter” on my wireless speakers as loud as I could. I could feel the bass booming in my chest, but I could barely make out the static sound of the notes of it in my ear, as if Mick Jagger were in a hermetically sealed bubble, and his music were playing on a poorly tuned AM radio station on a country road with bad reception, several states away. But also underwater.
Because I’m isolating alone, I speak to no one all day, at least in person, so I tried saying a few words to myself out loud. “Can you hear me?” I asked myself. No. I could not. My own voice, like Mick’s, sounded distant, underwater, AM radio staticky. Like when you’re trying to scream in a nightmare but no sound comes out. I dialed into my daily 7-minute workout zoom with the same friends I’ve been zooming in with since the start of the pandemic. I could see their mouths moving, and I could hear some staticky noises, but I could barely understand a word. Frightened, I clicked out of the meeting and turned on the kitchen faucet. Nothing. I banged the handle of a heavy knife against the counter. Nothing. I turned on the normally annoyingly loud Dustbuster. Nothing!
I’ve been dealing with deteriorating hearing for awhile, but this? This was next level. This was going from sixty to zero. Overnight. Like that movie about the drummer going deaf that I had to turn off, because it hit too close to home.
That night, lying on my roof in a hammock to ease my anxiety, I watched a helicopter pass by, directly above. It, too, was utterly silent. Maybe it was too high in the sky for me to hear? I took a video and sent it to a friend and my daughter. “Can you hear this?” I wrote. Both wrote back, yes, they could hear it. Loud and clear.
I started digging into the medical literature. As with most things Covid-related, no one seems to knows anything for sure, and actual data-driven studies are scant, but several papers did present either individual cases of post-Covid hearing loss or systematic reviews of all the papers presented on Covid-induced hearing loss thus far. Suffice it to say, a growing consensus does believe that a Covid infection, like several other viral infections, can lead to Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, shortened to SSNHL. The syndrome is defined as “the sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss without an identifiable etiology.”
SSNHL, one paper stated, “usually developed between a few days and 2 months after the diagnosis of COVID-19, and a proportion of patients developed it before the diagnosis of COVID-19.” My sudden hearing loss was on day seven of my infection. And it was, indeed, sudden. (Like Mary Ingalls going blind from scarlet fever, I thought to myself, which is really my only other point of reference.)
Studies in Turkey and China found a significant increase in reported cases of SSNHL following a Covid infection. Other studies did not, but then again, the researchers note, “These study data are based on the number of patients who visited the hospital. It is possible that some patients were reluctant to visit the hospital for worry of being infected with COVID-19, thus affecting the accuracy of the incidence of SSNHL.”
I might add one other glaring reason someone might not visit a hospital to announce, “I think Covid messed up my hearing!” aside from fear of catching more Covid: if you have no idea that a Covid infection can cause hearing loss, you probably won’t go to a hospital to announce it. More likely, you’ll make an appointment to visit an ENT several weeks or months or even years later to get a hearing test and forget all about the possible causal relationship between virus and hearing loss.
Or put it this way: in the same way I had no idea that the loud and unrelenting tinnitus I have in my left ear, which started right after my second Covid vaccine, might possibly be related to the delivery of that vaccine, if I don’t know x causes y, I might not mention x to my doctor when I tell him about y. I might not even go to a doctor. I might just google tinnitus, as I did the day of my second vaccine, realize there’s nothing to be done, shrug, and save the time, hassle, and money without ever connecting the dots between vaccine and daily annoyance.
I mean, how was I supposed to know that the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) reported 12,247 cases of tinnitus after vaccination if no one is writing about it in the newspapers and magazines I read, because these publications—with understandable reason—are afraid of publishing anything that might keep Americans from getting vaccinated2? In fact, the number of Americans reporting their post-Covid-vaccine tinnitus to VAERS probably only represents a teeny-tiny percentage of those affected, as you have to actually know to report your tinnitus to VAERS in the first place, which I did not. Then there’s the hassle of actually reporting adverse effects to VAERS, which our government, bless them, does not make simple.
By contrast, I did report my frozen shoulder to VAERS because I had to seek out expensive medical care afterward, of which I thought the government should be aware. Plus the relationship between the administering of the vaccine into my bursa instead of my muscle and the searing pain this caused was immediate, and my orthopedist told me I was the third woman he’d seen that week with the exact same vaccine-induced frozen shoulder.
But back to my hearing loss. To whom, I wondered, do I even report this? And is there a way to reverse it?
Because I still had Covid, I couldn’t visit an ENT’s office. Plus it was the beginning of the 4th of July weekend (which I and so many others born with my same ladyparts will not be celebrating, because our liberties were taken away by a delegitimized SCOTUS run by credibly accused rapists and sexual harassers last week.) So I texted a friend who’s one of New York City’s top ENT surgeons—whom I met on Tinder, because life’s like that—and I explained the situation. He immediately called in a prescription for Methylprednisolone, a steroid, which is the sole possible medical solution at this point. At least the drug, thus far, has cleared my clogged Eustachian tubes and provided some access to sound, albeit still muffled and unintelligible. As soon as my virus clears, and I finish taking the steroid, I’ll go see him for an official appointment and follow-up to see if my hearing loss is conductive—meaning it will get better and was caused by fluid build up—or sensorineural, meaning it’s permanent.
I’m hoping by then I’ll be hearing better, but I’m not holding my still-Covid-plagued breath. For now, I can’t listen to music. I can’t watch TV. (I mean I can, with subtitles, but it’s weird when you can’t even hear the dialogue.) I can’t hear children laughing in the street or cars passing by or my doorbell. If I want to talk on the phone, I have to put in my AirPods and crank up the volume as high as it will go, because I cannot hear the sound of a voice by holding the phone up to my ear. The voices I do hear in my AirPods, including my own, sound flat, scratchy, and tinny. And now the steady-tone tinnitus in my left ear has been joined by a new oscillating tone in my right, which seems to keep the same rhythm as my heart.
For now, I live in silence. As my fingers type these words, I can feel the tap of the keyboard, but the normal click-clacking of this tap-tapping does not produce a single sound in my ear. I guess I could get used to this. I hope I don’t have to.
Like many Gen-Xers, I was in elementary school when Jaws came out in 1975. My dad took me to see it at the Wellfleet drive in in Cape Cod. I was nine years old. I’m still getting over this.
I’m not just conjecturing here. In the summer of 2021, I pitched the first story I eventually wrote for this publication, on how vaccines are leading to frozen shoulders in women, to several publications for which I sometimes write, and each turned it down with this exact excuse: we don’t want to keep Americans from getting vaccinated. And look, I’m a big believer in vaccines, even so! I’ve had four of them. But I’m also a believer in not hiding possibly important information from the general public. Hence, this publication. You’re welcome. (Please consider becoming a paid subscriber, if you have found it useful. That is the only way I can keep doing this.)