August 31, 2020

Is Tinnitus the Not-So-Silent COVID-19 Symptom?

Is Tinnitus the Not-So-Silent COVID-19 Symptom?

Picture this...

It’s the perfect day for a walk around the neighborhood. Kids are laughing, birds are chirping, and you feel like you’re floating along the sidewalk gracefully. You’re in a graceful, floating daze, and then - OUCH! - you trip over a root pushing through the sidewalk that came out of nowhere.

That pretty much sums up the sudden impact COVID-19 has had over the past six months. And much like a huge branch, COVID-19 isn’t going to simply disappear with wishful thinking and good intentions. At the same time, you can’t just jump over or walk around the coronavirus like you can with something blocking the sidewalk.

That’s not intended to be pessimistic. In fact, it’s meant to be encouraging. The vast majority of Americans are practicing CDC established guidelines of social distancing and safety during this pandemic. They’re not just suggestions, they’re necessities in 2020. And so is your hearing.

CDC social distancing guidelines for COVID-19

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that some 37.5 million Americans over the age of 18 reported some degree of hearing loss. That’s almost 15% of the population living with impaired hearing. But there’s one specific factor that many people don’t take into consideration.

Hearing loss is primarily a neurological condition—one which can be symptomatic of cumulative effects on the nervous system. Tinnitus, a serious audiological disorder, can occur as the result of several environmental factors, noise-induced hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, TMJ damage and even some prescription medications. More recently, there’s an emerging body of evidence suggesting a link between the novel coronavirus and tinnitus, too.

COVID-19 and Tinnitus

Most of us assumed that COVID-19 primarily affects both the respiratory and muscular systems. As in other Coronaviruses some of the most common symptoms of exposure to this novel virus can include high fever, shortness and difficulty in breath, nausea, sore throat and muscle aches. All common in many viral respiratory illnesses.

However COVID-19 is an entirely different strain of virus and new research indicates that it is a cardiovascular disease - which complicates and explains many of the symptoms. It also points to the importance of self and public health mandated quarantine and isolation.

In a 2016 survey from the University of California, researchers discovered that there was a statistically higher association of individuals with tinnitus who had also been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorders and depression by close to 40%. And with over 1/3 of Americans indicating the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health has been dramatic, the effects of the pandemic can’t simply be isolated to physical conditions alone.

A recent survey of COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China revealed that more than 36% of reported cases also experienced severe neurological manifestations, including impaired consciousness, seizure, dizziness and headaches; all symptoms that have been associated with tinnitus.

While the family of diseases which have been classified under the coronavirus umbrella were identified as early as the 1960s, the novel coronavirus which results in COVID-19 is an entirely new strain and one which demands extensive research and documentation.

Organizations like the British Tinnitus Association have set up entire working bodies to investigate linkages. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting mental health writ large with significant increases in stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia - all precursors for the onset or flare up of tinnitus.

Preventing Tinnitus may be about Whole Body Health

If you’re not experiencing coronavirus symptoms, it could mean you’re fortunate enough to have avoided transmission. Unfortunately, it could also mean you’re asymptomatic. While older individuals and patients with pre-existing medical conditions are at greater risk of COVID-19, don’t fool yourself by thinking you’re immune. We’re all susceptible.

A constant ringing in your ears is not necessarily a sign of COVID-19 or tinnitus, however, initial evidence suggests the novel coronavirus may damage delicate neurological structures of the inner ear. Tinnitus caused by any reason should be regarded as a serious medical condition. It can cause vertigo, memory and speech impairment, severe mood swings, sleep disorders and total hearing loss.

Diagram of damaged hair cells causing hearing loss

While there are several therapies available which can help you cope with tinnitus, there is no scientifically known cure for chronic cases. However, there are preventative measures you can take which can reduce both clinically diagnosed tinnitus as well as lessen the chance of more informal situations where ringing in your ears may occur.

fresh vegetables

Control your blood pressure through diet and exercise. There’s a definitive correlation between high blood pressure and tinnitus, and many of our daily habits tend to aggravate both. Caffeine, nicotine and salt have all been associated with blood pressure spikes, as have inactive lifestyles. Don’t use social distancing measures as an excuse to avoid exercise. Healthy living means healthy hearing.

Get a good night’s rest. The suggested amount of sleep for most adults is between seven and nine hours a night. Unfortunately, that can be next to impossible for many of us. Stress, anxiety and other day to day factors have long been known to contribute to tinnitus; and while they’re sometimes unavoidable, minimizing tension and anxiety will renew your sense of restfulness and calm. You may even find that ringing in your ears can disappear overnight.

Omh works

Mindfulness is powerful and effective. It's clear that damage to the structures of the inner ear through loud events are a leading cause of tinnitus. However, tinnitus is a phenomenon that is understood to occur in the brain, not the ear. The human brain is the most complex and difficult to understand variable in controlling or preventing tinnitus. Disciplines to quiet and steady the mind like meditation are effective. Stress levels are decreased and coping with stress in the moment is improved. There are also many tools we can all use to help us stay centered. Meditation apps are simple, easy to track and have a large community to help us all stay steady. Sound therapy is another way to help heal, maintain calm, and quiet the the mind. These are all remedies to address how tinnitus can occur or reoccur.

Preparation is only half of prevention. Whether you’re a live music fanatic, a bike zealot, a budding DIY master or live in a non-stop concrete jungle, we're exposed to harmful noise every day. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to prioritize our health and protect our hearing no matter where life takes us. Preventive gear like high-fidelity hearing protection works and works well. But prevention alone may not always be enough to stop chronic tinnitus. If you’re experiencing ringing in your ears persistently for over two weeks, schedule an appointment with an otolaryngologist or audiologist. Don’t take your hearing for granted. It’s more fundamental to your health than you think.

Man putting EarPeace in ears on construction site

Check out Hearing 101 for more information.

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