We’ve been living in the world of COVID-19 for over two years now, and as time passes more and more findings have come to light about what the infection is really doing to the human body. As if the COVID-19 coronavirus isn’t enough of a burden, it appears that for some people, it may also be the cause of tinnitus or ringing in the ears. Though the data is still in its early stages, a systematic review of hearing-related symptoms noticed by patients recovering from COVID-19 found that nearly 15% reported tinnitus. Others have reported tinnitus as a side effect of receiving the coronavirus vaccination.
Is there a connection between tinnitus, COVID-19, and the COVID-19 vaccination? Read on for a review of it all.
What is tinnitus?
For many, tinnitus is the bane of their existence. Those with severe tinnitus experience it constantly, interfering with their ability to perform normal day-to-day tasks. The luckier ones experience tinnitus periodically and for shorter periods of time. Regardless of the frequency, tinnitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also sound like buzzing, crickets, clicking, or even pulsing sounds. These sounds come from inside the ear and have no external source.
Tinnitus is usually a symptom of another condition, not a condition itself. The most common causes of tinnitus are:
- Sudden exposure to a loud sound resulting in acoustic trauma
- Earwax blocking the canal
- Age-related hearing loss
- High blood pressure
- Head injury
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ)
- Ototoxic drugs that have been known to damage the eardrum
The good news is, that depending on the kind of sound you hear when experiencing tinnitus, it can help your audiologist determine the cause. For example, if the tinnitus you experience seems to be humming or pulsing, that is usually associated with some kind of blood vessel issue, like high blood pressure. If a clicking sound is heard, it is most often associated with the muscles around the jaw area, which could be linked to certain neurological disorders, like multiple sclerosis. Low-pitched ringing is usually thought to be related to ear canal blockages, whereas high-pitched ringing is usually correlated with loud noise exposure, hearing loss, or medication.
No matter the kind of sound you hear, if you’re experiencing tinnitus, it’s best to go see an audiologist to determine the cause of it. Together, you can design a treatment plan that will bring you the comfort and relief you need.
How tinnitus can be a sign of hearing loss
According to the National Institute of Aging, tinnitus may be a sign of hearing loss in older adults. Hearing loss starts to happen when there is a problem with your body’s hearing system. The tiny delicate hair cells in your ear that send sound signals to the brain get damaged, preventing them from sending signals, which leads to hearing loss. The National Institute of Aging has also found that the underlying cause of tinnitus is the same as the cause of hearing loss. Those same delicate hair cells are damaged, leading them to send the wrong signals to the brain, which can create a buzzing or ringing in the ears.
Because damage to the tiny hair cells is indicative of hearing loss, it means that tinnitus, caused by similar damage, can be a warning sign that hearing loss is next, as it is the same part of the ear that is damaged. Both hearing loss and tinnitus have similar triggers, which explains why they can sometimes be experienced simultaneously. The most common triggers include:
- Ear injury
- Natural aging leads to the deterioration of the inner ear hair cells
- Ear canal blockages due to wax buildup
- Loud sound exposure
- Various middle ear diseases
- Meniere’s syndrome
- Abnormal bone growth
- Trauma to the head or neck that affects the ear
Whether you are noticing a ringing in your ears, are having trouble hearing, or both, your course of action is the same. Find an audiologist near you and make an appointment today. The sooner you get help, the better your chances of improving your outcome. Since tinnitus is a symptom of many other conditions, it’s important to get answers as quickly as possible so you’re sure to get the treatment you need fast.
Can Tinnitus be linked to COVID-19?
From what we know of the novel coronavirus, it does impact more than the respiratory system, which could include the ears. However, at the moment, it cannot be said with certainty if there is a link between tinnitus and COVID-19. This is because tinnitus is rather common, and it is difficult to know if there is an actual connection between both, or if it’s just a coincidence.
A systematic review of hearing-related symptoms conducted in 2021 did find that of the patients who recovered from COVID-19:
- 7.6% of people report hearing loss
- 14.8% report tinnitus
- 7.2% report vertigo
However, audiologists stress that these results are based on data that isn’t entirely trustworthy as not all of the studies included control groups. Another review of studies showed no link between a person developing tinnitus after being sick with COVID-19, highlighting even further that as of now a connection between both cannot be proven. Though we are over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven’t gathered enough trustworthy data to say for certain whether one is linked to the other.
What about tinnitus and the COVID-19 vaccines?
With so much misinformation and disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines out there, it’s important to stress that no final consensus has been reached about whether or not COVID-19 vaccinations lead to tinnitus. At the moment, the link between tinnitus and COVID-19 vaccines is shaky and lacks data. While tinnitus is listed as a potential side effect of the Jenssen vaccination, it is not a listed side effect for the more common vaccines such as the ones from Pfizer and Moderna. However, there have been a variety of anecdotal reports of people experiencing tinnitus after receiving their vaccination.
As of this writing, the WHO reports there could be a link between tinnitus and the COVID-19 vaccinations, but stresses a need for more data. According to the Annals of Medicine and Surgery, “The incidence of COVID-19 vaccine-associated tinnitus is rare,” but scientists agree it is still important to conduct more studies to understand why some people experience tinnitus and others don’t. The more we find out about side effects, the more likely we are to come up with treatments that can address vaccine-associated tinnitus.
Does COVID-19 cause other audio and vestibular issues?
As we know, the COVID-19 coronavirus mainly targets the human respiratory system, leading to cough, fever, and fatigue. But another thing we also know is that COVID-19 impacts everybody a little differently, from brain fog to the loss of the sense of taste. However, some patients with COVID-19 have also shown auditory and vestibular (relating to the inner ear, affecting balance) effects. Scientists have suggested that viral infections can cause direct or indirect damage to inner ear structures, which could have an impact on hearing ability or tinnitus.
One study reported that the COVID-19 infection damaged the cochlea’s outer hair cells and led to the inflammation of both cochleae through MRI findings. There have also been multiple reports of patients experiencing tinnitus after recovering from the virus, as well as temporary hearing loss.
Though we are still in the early stages of obtaining data, many case reports are demonstrating a link between the COVID-19 virus and ear disorders. Dizziness, vertigo, and tinnitus are listed as the most commonly reported symptoms experienced by patients with COVID-19. In fact, many case studies list dizziness as a common clinical neurological symptom experienced by patients after COVID-19 recovery. For now, data shows that COVID-19 can cause neuronal death to the brainstem region containing vital components of the auditory pathway, which can cause hearing complications and even hearing loss.
When to see a doctor
The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. Having tinnitus can often feel lonely, especially if a doctor dismisses what you’re going through, but there are plenty of people going through the same thing, this is not in your head.
If you’re experiencing tinnitus, seeing an audiologist is the first step to getting the treatment you need. Before making an appointment, though, take some time to gather data so you can come into your appointment armed with information both you and your audiologist can use.
Take note of your tinnitus symptoms and track them for a few days. You’ll want to pay special attention to:
- When do you experience tinnitus?
- Are there environments that make it worse?
- Do you have tinnitus spikes?
- What sound do you hear, buzzing, humming, clicking, pulsing, or ringing?
- Do you experience tinnitus in one ear or both?
- Does it switch between both?
Once you have answers to all these questions, you’re ready for an appointment. Be sure to find an audiologist who provides tinnitus care as not all do. Though there is no cure for tinnitus, there are a variety of ways to address it. You and your audiologist will design a treatment plan that works best for your needs to address your tinnitus specifically. Remember, tinnitus is usually a symptom of an underlying condition, so the goal is to find out what that condition is, so you can eliminate it and the tinnitus all at once. This means you’ll likely want to see your PCP in addition to your audiologist.
Though there is no conclusive evidence stating that tinnitus and COVID-19 are inextricably linked, there does appear to be a connection between both. Hopefully, soon, more research and data will give us an answer we can rely on. Until then, it is up to us to keep an eye on our symptoms and address tinnitus as soon as we notice it.
If you are recovering from COVID-19 and are experiencing hearing loss or tinnitus, don’t ignore it. As soon as you’re better and testing negative, make an appointment with an audiologist to have your hearing checked out! The sooner you address the issue, the better your chances of seeing an improvement. Seeing as tinnitus is usually a symptom of another condition, you do not want to ignore it. Instead, you want to get to the bottom of it quickly to ensure you’re in the best of health.