One of the causes of hearing challenges is viral infections. Various viruses can produce inflammation that damages components in the inner ear which are critical for processing sound as well as lead to a bacterial (or fungal) infection that causes hearing loss. During earlier phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, initial studies revealed a possible link between the virus and audio-vestibular symptoms including: hearing loss and tinnitus. Over one year into the pandemic, more studies have shown a correlation between COVID-19, hearing loss, and tinnitus.
Tinnitus is commonly referred to as “ringing in the ears”. It is the experience of hearing a sound when no external noise is present in the environment. The sound being perceived is typically described as a ringing, clicking, buzzing, or whistling-like noise that is heard in one or both ears. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Nearly 15% of the population (50 million people) in the U.S. experiences tinnitus
- 20 million people experience chronic tinnitus
- 2 million people have debilitating tinnitus
Tinnitus is one of the most common symptoms of hearing loss, a permanent medical condition that reduces capacity to detect and process sound. This is often caused when the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear are damaged. There are thousands of hair cells in each ear which help convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals that then travel to the brain. Once these signals reach the brain, they are further processed and assigned meaning to; enabling us to understand what we hear. Different factors can damage these hair cells: exposure to loud noise, aging, existing medical conditions, and chronic infection.
Link Between COVID-19, Hearing Loss, & Tinnitus
More research shows that tinnitus could be a symptom of long COVID which describes symptoms that last after the infection has cleared. This includes a significant study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health:
- Study: involved 3,103 participants from 48 countries. The majority of participants had pre-existing tinnitus while a small number did not.
- Findings: 40% of people who experienced COVID-19 also experienced a worsening of their tinnitus. A small number of participants reported experiencing tinnitus for the first time alongside COVID-19.
The researchers who conducted this study concluded that there is a significant correlation between the virus and heightened tinnitus.
Additionally, researchers at the University of Manchester also explored this link in a study published in the International Journal of Audiology. They found 56 studies that established an association between COVID-19 and audio-vestibular symptoms. Their findings included that the prevalence of hearing loss was 7.6%, tinnitus was nearly 15%, and vertigo was 7.2% among people who experienced the virus. Kevin Munro, professor and lead researcher in this study suggested that COVID-19 can damage the nerves that carry sound information to the brain, leading to tinnitus and hearing loss.
Tinnitus is also exacerbated by stress which triggers and heightens the symptom. The majority of participants in the initial study previously mentioned, reported that they thought stress associated with the pandemic was worsening their tinnitus. This includes the ways in which the pandemic has produced social distancing measures, taken a toll on social life, impacted job and income, forced adjustments around child care, etc.
Tips for Managing Tinnitus
Though much is known about common symptoms and effects of COVID-19, it is important to be aware of tinnitus and hearing loss as possible effects of the virus as well. If you experience this symptom, there are ways you can effectively manage it to reduce its impact on daily life. A few tips include:
- Have hearing tested: because tinnitus often occurs with underlying hearing loss, it is important to have your hearing tested. Schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare provider for a hearing exam. This involves a painless process that identifies hearing capacity in both ears which establishes any impairment and the degree of hearing loss you could be experiencing. After your hearing needs are established, an audiologist is able to make recommendations to effectively meet those needs. Treating hearing loss alleviates symptoms including tinnitus.
- Reduce stress: stress is a significant activator of tinnitus so identifying stressors and using strategies to healthily process stress can be really helpful. Try activities like meditation, yoga, walks etc. which aid in relaxation and enhance breathing. Exercise is another useful strategy that can reduce stress and tinnitus.
- Develop sleep routine: tinnitus often takes a toll on sleep and lack of quality sleep heightens tinnitus. You can break this loop by developing a sleep routine that facilitates quality sleep: avoiding screens prior to bed, getting comfortable bedding, adjusting lighting, sleeping at the same time each night, etc.
If you have experienced difficulty with hearing loss or tinnitus after COVID, please contact us today to schedule an appointment. We’re here to help with your hearing health!