- Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no real external noise is present. This is often explained as “ringing in the ears”.
- During the pandemic, reports of tinnitus have increased, especially among people with COVID-19, a study has found.
- Experts explain how the link between COVID-19 and tinnitus is biologically possible but needs more research.
As scientists learn more about the prolonged effects of COVID-19, tinnitus is on their list of conditions to look out for.
Often referred to as “ringing in the ears”, tinnitus is the perception of sound when no real external noise is present.
Of the millions of people who live with tinnitus, many report hearing buzzing, hissing, hissing, popping, clicking, and in rare cases music.
“Persistent and consistent tinnitus can impact overall quality of life when it interferes with a person’s concentration, hearing, sleep, and mood. Patients with clinically significant tinnitus may find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle where their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of balance, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep,” Julie Prutsman, Audiologist, American Tinnitus Board Member Association (ATA), and founder of the Sound Relief Hearing Center, told Healthline.
The ATA states that tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying health condition. In most cases, tinnitus is caused by a “sensory neuroreaction of the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system”.
According to a 2011-2012 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 20 million people experience distressing tinnitus on a regular basis and about 2 million people experience severe, sometimes debilitating tinnitus.
“Tinnitus is very common. The older we get, the more common it is. It can be very mild, intermittent, severe and debilitating, and change your whole quality of life. It led to people being so distressed that they committed suicide,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told Healthline.
A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Audiology estimated that nearly 15% of people with COVID-19 reported having tinnitus, often early in their infection.
Audiologists like Prutsman have heard anecdotal accounts of patients who say they experienced changes in hearing and tinnitus after having COVID-19.
Almost all viruses elicit an inflammatory response from host cells, which can damage multiple systems in the body, Prutsman said.
“It is possible, although it is too early to fully understand, that COVID-19 creates changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve or auditory cortex in the brain that would contribute to tinnitus,” he said. she declared.
Examples of viruses that cause permanent hearing loss are cytomegalovirus and rubella. However, Prutsman said not everyone who experiences permanent hearing loss from a virus will experience tinnitus.
If tinnitus is intermittent and does not persist, COVID-19 is unlikely to cause permanent damage to these structures.
“However, until more research can be conducted to better understand all of this, it is unclear if there is a real link between the two and what could be causing it if there is a link” , added Prutsman.
Schaffner said it’s worth studying because COVID-19 has the ability to affect many organ systems, making it conceivable that it could cause tinnitus or worsen chronic tinnitus.
However, while it’s biologically possible, Schaffner said drawing conclusions like this without more evidence can be a logical trap because scientists can’t draw conclusions based on an anecdote.
For example, he said that although people know that roosters crow before dawn, few people believe that roosters cause the sun to rise.
“So there are ways to work out epidemiology to determine if tinnitus may indeed be caused by previous COVID infection. It’s still an open question,” he said.
Other anecdotal accounts include people with chronic tinnitus reporting an increase in severity after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
In these cases, Prutsman said it was likely due to nerve inflammation and usually resolved within a few weeks.
However, Schaffner pointed out that you can’t measure tinnitus, which makes it difficult to objectively determine whether what a person is experiencing is a coincidence or something they perceived, which may or may not be accurate.
“It’s like taste and smell – it’s just based on what patients tell you. We all know as human beings that our perceptions, feelings, concepts and the circumstances in which we live influence our thinking and our conclusions about things,” he said.
Prutsman agreed and noted that possible explanations could be due to vaccine-induced neuroinflammation, or an increased limbic system response caused by fear of contracting COVID-19, the vaccine, or both.
“Stress, anxiety and lack of sleep are three of the main triggers for a stronger perception of tinnitus, and many patients would report that they experienced it after receiving the vaccine and/or even before get vaccinated,” she said.
Although there is no current cure for tinnitus, Prutsman said there is an effective treatment.
“Tinnitus is a lot like diabetes in that we can effectively manage it to the point that it’s not a persistent, intrusive sound that creates insomnia or emotional distress in the person experiencing it. suffers,” she said.
Treatment for tinnitus varies from person to person depending on how bothersome it is and when it bothers the person.
For people who are only occasionally bothered by it, finding tools and strategies to take their mind off the tinnitus can help, such as focusing on a hobby or activity.
“For someone who is only bothered by it when they go to sleep at night, it might be helpful to use something as simple as a free app (i.e. Sleep Pillow) to listen to the sounds of rain or ocean waves through your cellphone or tablet,” Prutsman says.
For people with persistent awareness of tinnitus, it can be helpful to block their nervous system’s reaction to tinnitus, as well as teaching them how to block the perception of it so that it does not interfere with normal daily activities.
Based on a person’s experience with tinnitus, an audiologist may recommend sound enrichment, relaxation exercises, prescriptive sound therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy principles.
“The good news is that tinnitus can be treated and patients don’t have to go home and live with it,” Prutsman said.