Is an Earache a Sign of COVID-19?

Plus, why the respiratory illness symptom might be more common with the COVID-19 Delta and Omicron variants.

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 people who have been infected with COVID-19 have also been known to experience other respiratory symptoms (congestion, runny nose, sore throat), and even gastrointestinal woes (diarrhea, nausea, constipation).

Is-An-Earache-a-Sign-of-COVID-GettyImages-1205739966-AdobeStock_191423603
Getty Images / AdobeStock

And as variants of the virus started popping up, some people were reporting symptoms a bit different from the ones we've all come to know. Reported in August 2021 by WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Florida, one such symptom is: earaches.

According to the news station, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel revealed that he experienced an earache with his COVID-19 diagnosis during a press conference. "This morning I woke up with a sore throat and earache, so I went and got tested," Vrabel told reporters. He was eventually given a positive diagnosis for the virus.

So what gives? Can earaches be a COVID-19 symptom—or are they just another typical manifestation of COVID-19'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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 have at least some of the following symptoms:

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

The CDC goes on to clarify that this list is not an exhaustive list, meaning it doesn't provide all of the possible symptoms someone with COVID-19 could have—these are just the most commonly reported as of March 2022.

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, said 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," Dr. Adalja told 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, said Dr. Wald, 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. Still, Dr. Wald said it's especially common in young children, whose eustachian tubes are smaller and more easily obstructed.

Are Earaches More Common with the COVID-19 Variants?

While not everyone who has COVID-19 will experience problems with their ears, an earache might be more common with the variants of SARS-CoV-2, including Delta and Omicron, as it seems like they have more upper respiratory tract symptoms, Taylor Heald-Sargent, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics specializing in infectious diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told 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 infected 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," said Dr. Adalja. Additionally, Dr. Heald-Sargent explained 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 that antibiotics don't help with viral illnesses, including COVID-19, influenza, and the common cold).

Researchers have been trying to figure out, though, if COVID-19 might be the cause of earache in someone who is sick with the virus. For example, a November 2021 study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggested that SARS-CoV-2 can infect inner ear cells. And the researchers feel that their "results point to SARS-CoV-2 infection of the inner ear as a cause of COVID-19-associated hearing and balance issues". However, more research needs to be done.

Just a reminder, 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.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?