What is the role of viral infection in the pathophysiology of sudden hearing loss?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019
  • Author: Neeraj N Mathur, MBBS, MS, DNB(ENT), MNAMS, FAMS; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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The evidence to implicate viral infection as one cause of sudden idiopathic sensory hearing loss is circumstantial. Studies of patients with ISSHL show a moderate prevalence of recent viral-type illness. Sometimes, evidence of recent viral seroconversion or inner ear histopathology consistent with viral infection is present.

The weakest of these links is the history of a recent viral illness. Noncontrolled studies report that 17-33% of patients recall a recent viral illness. Should those numbers seem significant, 25% of patients without hearing loss visiting an otolaryngology clinic had experienced a viral-like illness within a month.

Comparing patients experiencing ISSHL with control patients has produced some evidence of viral seroconversion. Rates of seroconversion for the herpesvirus family were significantly higher in the population of patients with sudden hearing loss.

Finally, temporal bone histopathologic studies of patients who experienced ISSHL found damage in the cochlea consistent with viral injuries. Loss of hair cells and supporting cells, atrophy of the tectorial membrane, atrophy of the stria vascularis, and neuronal loss were observed. These patterns were similar to findings in documented cases of hearing loss secondary to mumps, measles, and maternal rubella. Viral infection can be implicated as a cause of ISSHL, but this cannot, as yet, be proven. Infections with mumps virus provide the best model for a virally induced sensorineural hearing loss. In one study of ISSHL, subclinical mumps infections were documented in 9 of 130 patients by positive immunoglobulin M (IgM) mumps antibodies. [1]

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