Tinnitus is a challenging condition. When you live with a constant ringing or buzzing noise in your ear without a discernible external source, that can be enough to cause anywhere from distraction to distress — and worse during an already difficult time. Tinnitus has been found to increase or worsen, likely from the increased stress and anxiety of coping with COVID-19.
Increasing Tinnitus During COVID-19
One of the triggers of tinnitus is stress, which can exacerbate the perception of non-existent buzzing, ringing, and clicking noises. As we grapple with a persisting threat to public health, we need to do everything we can to stay healthy, which includes attending to our hearing health and addressing conditions that heighten our experience of this challenging time.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is most commonly understood as hearing sounds that are not there — buzzing, ringing, clicking, whistling, and hissing noises, among others. These phantom or non-existent noises are perceived in the ears, even with no identifiable external source. But don’t fret just yet — you are not going crazy.
There are many potential causes of tinnitus, leading you — and many others — to “hear” these non-existent noises. You are not alone: tinnitus affects nearly 50 million in varying degrees. It often indicates an underlying condition, most commonly age-related hearing loss, injury to the ear, or a disorder in the circulatory system.
Causes of Tinnitus
With tinnitus being a common hearing ailment, there are several lifestyle and occupational factors, underlying health conditions, and events that cause the onset of tinnitus. Treating tinnitus by addressing how it presents and its impact on your overall health depends on its cause:
- Presbycusis: also known as age-related hearing loss, which declines naturally in old age, commonly at the age of 60
- Occupational and lifestyle factors: most commonly rooted in exposure to loud noises, which can result in noise-induced hearing loss
- Earwax blockage: while earwax is normal and healthy, increased accumulation can cause temporary hearing loss, such as muffled sound quality, or even irritate the eardrum
- Changes in the ear bones: conditions such as otosclerosis can affect the bones in your ears, and as a result, your hearing
- Ménière’s disease: this results from abnormal levels in the pressure of the inner ear fluids
- TMJ disorders: problems with the temporomandibular joint — or the jaw area — can result in a misaligned bite and teeth grinding or clenching, which can amplify the perception of tinnitus
- Head or neck injuries: trauma to the head or neck can impact the inner ear, and as a result, the nerves and brain functions responsible for hearing
- Acoustic neuroma: This is a tumour on the cranial nerve which can impact functions related to balance and hearing
- Eustachian tube dysfunction: damage to the tube inside the ear which connects the middle ear to the upper throat and makes the ear feel full
- Muscle spasms: these can be caused by neurological diseases and occur in the inner ear, to an adverse effect
- Medication side effects: tinnitus is often cited as a potential side effect of many medications, so check with your healthcare provider before taking any new drugs
- Hormonal changes: often occurring in the female body, to which tinnitus can be an effect
- Sinus pressure and barometric trauma: conditions like nasal congestion caused by a severe cold, flu, or sinus infection can cause abnormal pressure in the middle ear.
How does stress cause tinnitus?
Some stress is a normal part of life and is experienced mentally, emotionally, and physically. Stress is most commonly felt with a racing heartbeat, disrupted sleeping patterns, sweating, loss of appetite, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, feeling worried, irritability, headaches, muscle tension, and dizziness.
Aside from the overall health impact of stress, it can also affect your hearing by triggering tinnitus symptoms. If you already experience tinnitus, the symptoms can be exacerbated by increased stress levels. This makes you more aware of the constant or intermittent ringing, buzzing, and whistling noises, and these can grow more frequent and even louder. And because tinnitus can already be distressing, to begin with, the result is even higher stress levels brought on by increased perception of tinnitus.
Is COVID-19 making tinnitus worse?
We already know that tinnitus can heighten existing stress levels, and living through the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most significant stressors impacting many of us. New research on tinnitus revealed that this hearing condition is exacerbated by COVID-19, aside from the impact of stress on the perception of tinnitus triggers and overall hearing health.
In particular, a study published in the International Journal of Audiology found that almost 15% of 138 COVID-19 patients that required hospital care reported impaired hearing for up to eight weeks after being discharged. In the study, 40% of those who had COVID-19 symptoms simultaneously experienced worsening of their tinnitus episodes. As a result, tinnitus could be a “long” COVID-19 symptom — yet another long-term effect of the disease that still needs to be studied as it continues to unfold.
Outside of these hospitalized cases, physical distancing guidelines implemented to curb the virus transmission have also drastically altered occupational and lifestyle routines. These may make tinnitus worse by increasing patients’ perception of the buzzing and ringing sounds resulting from the stress of catching the virus, financial challenges, loneliness in isolation, and difficulty maintaining healthy sleeping patterns.
On top of stress, tinnitus can also worsen due to external factors, primarily exposure to loud noises and coping mechanisms employed to grapple with drastically altered lifestyle routines. These include increased video calls, noisier homes, homeschooling, and high coffee and alcohol consumption.
COVID-19 has necessitated changes to healthcare priorities, so difficulties in accessing support right away have contributed to emotional distress and worsened tinnitus symptoms.
Manage Your Tinnitus at a Time of Great Stress
The impact of COVID-19 is still unfolding globally, and every day even healthy people live in fear of getting sick and experiencing further disruptions to their lives. While we cannot control the pandemic outside of the physical distancing and healthcare measures we can follow, we can mitigate its effects on our everyday lives. That includes managing stress and anxiety brought on by the uncertainty of these times.
For instance, you can speak with your healthcare provider regarding increasing your supply of antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to help you manage existing mental health conditions, and with them, tinnitus — while adhering to prescription limits. Make time for healthy habits, and explore breathing techniques to calm anxiety.
Finally, explore relaxation techniques like meditation and exercise and noise-masking devices like hearing aids to reduce external noises and with them the perception of tinnitus. By taking care of ourselves during this challenging time, we can grow more resilient in our fight against the pandemic.
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