Around 40 percent of people with tinnitus say catching Covid-19 has made their hearing condition worse, while some patients have even reported the infection appeared to trigger the hearing problem for the first time, a new study has found.
It also found around a third of tinnitus sufferers believe their condition has become harder to manage due to the wider stress of the pandemic, such as social isolation from lockdown measures, financial worries, and fear of falling sick. This was especially true for women and younger adults.
Reporting in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, scientists at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) surveyed over 3,000 people with tinnitus from 48 countries across the world, the vast majority from Europe and the US. Around 8 percent of these participants had experienced Covid-19 symptoms. Of these, 40 percent of people reported that Covid-19 symptoms exacerbated their tinnitus, 54 percent said they noticed no difference, and 6 percent believed it had improved their tinnitus.
Although the study set out to look at people with pre-existing tinnitus, they also identified seven individuals who reported having Covid-19-initiated tinnitus.
Tinnitus is the perception of a relentless noise in the ears. For many people, it's a ringing sound, but it also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, whooshing, or buzzing. Tinnitus itself is not a condition, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition. There is no single cause, but it's often linked to exposure to loud noises, ear infections, and stress, or simply age-related hearing loss. It can be a debilitating and exhausting condition that can have a profound effect on peoples’ wellbeing. A handful of studies have linked suffering from tinnitus to an increased risk of suicide, anxiety, and depression, although the nature of this link is not totally clear.
The question is: why would Covid-19 make tinnitus worse? There are a few ideas, but no definitive answers just yet.
Firstly, the fact that a small number of participants reported their tinnitus was triggered after developing Covid-19 symptoms indicates that it could be associated with “long Covid” in some cases. Long-Covid is a loose term used to describe the lingering impacts of Covid-19 infection that can sometimes lurk for months and often include a wide array of unexpected symptoms, including fatigue, loss of taste, and difficulty concentrating. In one rare case, a man experienced sudden permanent hearing loss over a month after contracting Covid-19. So, it appears Covid-19 infection can spark symptoms similar to those seen with tinnitus.
Secondly, the researchers suggest that the trend could be explained by the major changes many people have experienced in 2020.
“The findings of this study highlight the complexities associated with experiencing tinnitus and how both internal factors, such as increased anxiety and feelings of loneliness, and external factors, such as changes to daily routines, can have a significant effect,” Dr Eldre Beukes, lead study author and Research Fellow at ARU and Lamar University in Texas, said in a statement.
“Some of the changes brought about by Covid-19 appear to have had a negative impact on the lives of people with tinnitus and participants in this study reported that Covid-19 symptoms are worsening or, in some cases, even initiating tinnitus and hearing loss. This is something that needs to be closely examined by both clinical and support services.”
While tinnitus can prove very tricky to treat, a number of promising new developments are paving the way for more effective treatments. Just last month, researchers in Ireland reported the success of a non-invasive device that can silence symptoms of tinnitus for up to a year using headphones and tongue zapping.