As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape our lives, increasing research shows longer and shorter-term effects of the virus. Recent studies have shown that there is a correlation between COVID-19, hearing loss, and tinnitus. This supports what is already known about how viral infections can impact hearing. Viruses can create swelling and inflammation in the inner ear which is integral to how we absorb and process sound. This can lead to hearing loss and/or produce tinnitus as a symptom.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is often referred to as “ringing in the ears”. It describes hearing a noise in one or both ears that is not audible to others because there is no actual external sound present in the environment. This phantom-like noise is usually characterized as a buzzing, ringing, whistling, or clicking noise that can be heard intermittently or constantly. It is estimated that 50 million people experience tinnitus and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20 million people live with chronic tinnitus and 2 million people have debilitating tinnitus.
Tinnitus is not a medical condition itself but is a symptom of an underlying health issue. Hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus, with 90% of tinnitus cases occurring with hearing loss. Hearing loss can be caused by a range of factors including exposure to loud noise, aging, and existing medical conditions. Most often, impaired hearing results from damaged hair cells in the inner ear. These hair cells translate incoming soundwaves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. The brain further processes these signals and makes meaning out of the sound we hear. Damaged hair cells disrupt this process, resulting in hearing loss and often producing tinnitus as a symptom.
Link Between COVID-19, Hearing Loss, & Tinnitus
Studies show that tinnitus could be a symptom of long COVID, effects of the virus after the infection has cleared. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health included 3,103 participants from 48 countries. Some participants had tinnitus before experiencing COVID and some participants did not. Researchers found that 40% of people who developed COVID-19 also reported that their tinnitus worsened. Additionally, some participants reported experiencing tinnitus for the first time after COVID.
In addition to this study, researchers at the University of Manchester also investigated the link between COVID-19, tinnitus, and hearing loss. Their study analyzed 56 studies that established a correlation between COVID-19 and audio-vestibular symptoms. They found that among people who experience COVID-19, the prevalence of hearing loss was 7.6%, tinnitus was 14.8% and vertigo was 7.2%. Researchers suggest that inflammation produced by the virus can affect the inner ear, leading to hearing loss and tinnitus. Additionally, tinnitus is triggered by stress and the majority of participants reported experiencing heightened stress related to the pandemic.
Tips to Manage Tinnitus
Tinnitus can be stressful to navigate. It can take a toll on sleep, communication, and wellbeing. Learning ways to manage tinnitus can alleviate its impact, allowing you to navigate your day with greater ease. A few tips to effectively manage tinnitus include:
- Schedule a hearing test. Because hearing loss often occurs alongside tinnitus, it is important to have your hearing tested. Schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare specialist who can conduct a hearing test. Hearing tests are noninvasive and measure your hearing capacity in both ears. If hearing loss is detected, your healthcare provider will recommend effective treatment options. The most common treatment is hearing aids which alleviate hearing loss symptoms including tinnitus.
- Tinnitus sound therapy. This type of therapy uses a process known as habituation to retrain how your brain understands and processes tinnitus. It involves shifting from tinnitus being an unpleasant noise to a neutral sound.
- Use sound machines. Creating white noise is a useful way to mask tinnitus. You can do this by using a white noise machine or app that plays calming sounds. This type of background noise shifts your attention away from tinnitus.
- Practice meditation. Finding ways to process stress which is a major trigger of tinnitus can be a great way to alleviate it. Meditation is a useful way to relax and create more calming energy.
Integrating these tips can help reduce tinnitus and improve your health. Contact us to learn more!