Increasing research continues to highlight the long-term effects of COVID-19. Recent studies have shown that hearing loss and tinnitus can be symptoms of the virus. This aligns with what is already known about how viruses can impact the auditory system which is the sensory system for hearing.
Understanding Hearing Loss & Tinnitus
Hearing loss is one of the most common health issues people experience today. It results in a reduced capacity to hear and process sound which produces a range of symptoms that strain communication. This has multifaceted effects on overall health and wellness and can contribute to the development of other health conditions. One of the symptoms hearing loss often produces is tinnitus. Tinnitus is the experience of hearing a sound in one or both ears that others cannot hear. This sound is often described as a ringing, buzzing, or clicking-like noise that is heard mildly or profoundly. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 90% of all tinnitus cases also occur with hearing loss.
Tinnitus and hearing loss is often the result of damaged hair cells in the inner ear. These sensory cells concert incoming sound waves into electrical signals. These signals are then carried to the brain, via the auditory nerve, where they are further processed. The brain assigns meaning to these signals which is what allows us to understand what we hear. Tinnitus not only affects hearing capacity and communication; but it can also take a toll on sleep, concentration, produce irritability and fatigue, etc. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 20 million people live with chronic tinnitus and 2 million people have debilitating tinnitus.
Link Between COVID-19, Hearing Loss & Tinnitus
Emerging research and more recent studies show that hearing loss and tinnitus can be symptoms of long COVID. Long COVID refers to symptoms that persist after the viral infection has completely passed. One study, published in Frontiers in Public Health, investigated the impact of the virus on tinnitus. It included 3,103 participants in 48 countries; most of whom had pre-existing tinnitus. Researchers found that COVID-19 worsened tinnitus in 40% of participants and 7 participants experienced tinnitus for the first time after having the virus.
Another study that explores the link between COVID-19, hearing loss, and tinnitus was conducted by researchers at the University of Manchester. This study reviewed 56 existing studies that also showed this link. After collating and analyzing the data across these studies, researchers found that the prevalence of hearing loss was 7.6% among people who experienced the virus.
Additionally, the prevalence of tinnitus was 14.8% and vertigo was 7.2%. This data shows that COVID-19 can impact the auditory and vestibular systems – the systems that manage to hear and maintain balance. This supports what experts already know to be true about how viruses can impact these systems. Viral infections produce inflammation in the body, including in the inner ear. This swelling can impair the sensory cells and nerves in the inner ear which are critical for receiving and processing incoming sound. Additionally, these studies also highlight the increased stress as a result of the pandemic which also exacerbates tinnitus.
Tips to Manage Tinnitus
There are effective and simple ways you can address and manage tinnitus. A few tips include:
- Test Hearing. If you have experienced tinnitus or even the most minor changes to hearing, it is important to have your hearing assessed. This is especially important if you have also had COVID. Hearing tests are painless and noninvasive. They are facilitated by a hearing healthcare specialist and are designed to identify any impairment as well as the degree of hearing loss you could be experiencing. The most common treatment for hearing loss is hearing aids which offer countless benefits including alleviating symptoms like tinnitus.
- Use Sound Machines. Creating ambient noise is a useful way to shift your attention away from tinnitus. Background noise can help mask tinnitus, alleviating its impact. You can do this by using sound machines or even playing soft sounds in the background using apps.
- Breathing Exercises. Processing stress healthily and proactively can also alleviate tinnitus. A simple way you can do this is by integrating breathing exercises into your daily life. This can be as easy as breathing in for 5 seconds and exhaling for another 5 seconds.
- Tinnitus Sound Therapy. Another option is tinnitus sound therapy which uses a process known as habituation. This focuses on retraining the brain to perceive tinnitus sounds as harmless.
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