The Zika Virus and Hearing Loss in Adults

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July 19, 2017
Mosquitos are the leading carrier of Zika Virus

The recent Olympic Games in Brazil brought the Zika virus to the world’s notice.  We all heard about athletes choosing to drop out of the games rather than risk exposure.  Recently, the WHO (World Health Organization) declared Zika a “public health emergency of international concern.”

What is Zika?

Zika is a Flavivirus carried by mosquitos.  The Flavivirus genus also includes West Nile virus, dengue virus, and yellow fever virus.  The virus is primarily transmitted through mosquito bites.  While the effects on infants and pregnant women have been known for some time by healthcare professionals, recent research is starting to corroborate anecdotal evidence of hearing and vision issues in adults with Zika.

To be clear, in most cases, adults will be only mildly ill or completely asymptomatic if they contract the Zika virus.  For those experiencing symptoms, the most common are fever, headaches, pink eye, and rash lasting about one week.

Travel Alert:  Zika and Hearing Loss

Researchers are working hard to catch up to this virus that is now in the international spotlight. Recent studies in hard-hit areas of Brazil have documented cases of sudden hearing loss with Zika patients.  One ENT (ear, nose, and throat physician) named Dr. Viviane Boaventure reported that while most of her patients experiencing hearing loss have recovered, some were still dealing with hearing loss months after the other symptoms ended. “We are just starting and we don’t have a lot of patients to tell you if [the damage] will be reversible or it will be permanent,” said Boaventura.

Boaventure also reports other symptoms like tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and dizziness in some of her Zika patients and calls for more research to figure out why. Boaventure and her colleagues published a study called Transient Hearing Loss in Adults Associated With Zika Virus Infection  in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2016, highlighting the hearing-loss experiences of three patients in Brazil. The study states one possible cause as acute viral damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve, but an exact cause cannot be determined at this time.

Prevention

With sporadic reports of neurological issues like hearing loss, vision issues, light-headedness, and vertigo, there is concern among healthcare providers that Zika may cause more considerable damage than previously believed in adults.  Since there isn’t a vaccine for Zika, yet, prevention is the best course of action.

First and foremost, avoid travel to areas with known Zika outbreaks.  Second, protect yourself against mosquito bites.  This is good practice in non-Zika areas, as well.  Here are some simple bite-protection tips:

  • Wear light-covered clothing that covers as much of the body as possible.  
  • Use screens and keep doors and windows closed.
  • Sleep under mosquito nets.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Empty and clean potential mosquito breeding sites in and around the house such as buckets and baby pools.

Finally, see your healthcare provider immediately if you experience any Zika symptoms, including sudden hearing loss, especially after traveling.  Even if you don’t suspect Zika, seek care right away for any unexplained hearing issues.  Schedule an appointment with us to discuss any travel concerns or for a hearing health evaluation.