Is an Earache a Sign of COVID-19? Here's What Experts Say
Plus, why the respiratory illness symptom might be more common with the Delta variant.
Nearly two full years into the pandemic, you can probably rattle off most of the common signs and symptoms of COVID-19: fever, chills, fatigue, body aches, loss of taste or smell—but sometimes, those symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg. Some COVID sufferers have also been known to cause other respiratory systems (congestion, runny nose, sore throat), and even gastrointestinal woes (diarrhea, nausea, constipation).
And with the Delta variant of the virus currently overtaking the US (it currently makes up 99.1% of all COVID-19 cases in the US, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) some people are reporting symptoms a bit different from the ones we've all come to know. One such symptom, as reported by WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Florida: earaches.
According to the news station, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel revealed that he experienced an earache with his own COVID-19 diagnosis during a press conference. "This morning I woke up with a sore throat and earache, so I went and got tested," he told reporters. He was eventually given a positive diagnosis for the virus.
So what gives? Could earaches be the newest COVID-19 symptom—or are they just another typical manifestation of COVID's respiratory effects? Here's what you need to know about earaches and COVID-19, according to infectious disease experts.
First: What are the most common symptoms of COVID-19?
Just as a refresher for what you can expect with COVID-19, the CDC provides a list of the most common symptoms associated with the virus. While cases can range from mild to severe, people diagnosed with COVID-19 usually deal with the following:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
The CDC goes on to clarify that this list is not an exhaustive list, meaning it doesn't provide all of the possibles symptoms someone with COVID-19 could have—these are just the most commonly reported.
So, is an earache a symptom of COVID-19?
It certainly can be. Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Health Security, says he wouldn't call earaches a common symptom of COVID-19—but it's not unheard of. "Many respiratory infections, especially those that cause sore throats, can sometimes also cause earaches," he tells Health.
According to Ellen Wald, MD, an infectious disease physician at UWHealth in Madison, Wisconsin, earaches occur during respiratory infections because of the connection between the nasal passages and the ears. There's a passageway called the eustachian tube that connects the ears and the back of the throat; normally, Dr. Wald says, the tube ventilates the ears and drains fluid from them.
When a person has an upper respiratory infection (which can be triggered by viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19), the nasal passages can drain mucus into the throat, and the throat can send fluid up into the eustachian tube. The tube can then get clogged and interfere with the ears' ability to drain fluid—this ultimately causes an earache.
Ear pain during any kind of respiratory illness can happen to anyone, but Dr. Wald says it's especially common in young children, whose eustachian tubes are smaller and more easily obstructed.
Are earaches more common with the Delta strain of COVID-19?
While not everyone who has COVID-19 will experience problems with their ears, an earache might be more common right now, as the Delta variant continues to surge. "It seems like Delta has more upper respiratory tract symptoms, so it makes sense people with the Delta variant would experience more ear symptoms," Taylor Heald-Sargent, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics specializing in infectious diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Health.
According to Dr. Adalja, in some cases, fluid in the ear during a bout of COVID-19 could also result in an ear infection—but in that case, the ear isn't actually affected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. "Inflammation in the ear can cause secondary bacterial ear infections, just like we see commonly with influenza," he says. Dr. Heald-Sargent explains that when fluid is stagnant in the ears, it can become infected with bacteria already present in the body. In this case, a healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to stave off the bacteria (although it's worth noting antibiotics don't help with viral illnesses, including COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold).
While experts agree earaches or ear infections could be a sign of COVID-19, Dr. Heald-Sargent points out there's no official data yet suggesting the Delta variant causes more ear aches or infections than previous strains—or that earache is a common symptom of COVID-19 at all (meaning: you might just have a summer cold).
Still, if you experience an earache associated with other respiratory symptoms, such as a runny or congested nose, a headache, cough, or a sore throat—along with any other potential symptoms of the virus—it's worth getting checked out by a healthcare provider and tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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