Covid-19 is having a life-changing impact on some people’s hearing.
The first case of permanent hearing loss linked to the virus in the UK was revealed in October – a 45-year-old man experienced sudden hearing loss in one ear after being treated for the virus, and doctors couldn’t find another cause.
Another study, led by The University of Manchester, reviewed the clinical history and outcomes of 121 people hospitalised with Covid-19, and found 16 (13.2%) patients reported a change in hearing and/or tinnitus since having Covid-19.
Tinnitus describes a sensation of hearing a sound such as ringing, humming or buzzing, but in the absence of any actual sound.
The virus appears to not only be prompting new tinnitus in some people, but also exacerbating the issue among those with existing tinnitus, according to a new study led by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), with support from the British Tinnitus Association and the American Tinnitus Association.
About 30% of people will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives, according to the British Tinnitus Association, and the number of people who live with persistent tinnitus is approximately 13% (around one in eight people).
The new study involved 3,103 people with tinnitus from 48 countries – although the vast majority came from the UK and the US.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, it found 40% of those displaying symptoms of Covid-19 simultaneously experienced a worsening of their tinnitus.
Although the study focused on people with pre-existing tinnitus, a small number of participants also reported that their condition was initially triggered by developing Covid-19 symptoms, suggesting that tinnitus could be a ‘long Covid’ symptom in some cases. People with long Covid have previously described tinnitus as a symptom they’ve experienced after having the virus to HuffPost UK.
A large proportion of people believe their tinnitus is being made worse by social distancing measures, which have led to significant changes to work and lifestyle routines, introduced to help control the spread of the virus.
UK respondents reported this to be a greater issue compared to people from other countries, with 46% saying that lifestyle changes had negatively impacted their tinnitus compared to 29% in North America.
Internal worries such as fear of catching Covid-19, financial concerns, loneliness and trouble sleeping have contributed to making tinnitus more bothersome for 32% of people overall, according to the study. And external factors, such as more video calls, noisier home environments, home schooling and increased coffee and alcohol consumption, were also cited by respondents.
The study noted that as well as increasing the severity of tinnitus symptoms, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for people to access healthcare support for the condition. This could further increase emotional distress and worsen tinnitus symptoms, creating a vicious cycle, researchers said.
Lead author Dr Eldre Beukes, a research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Lamar University in Texas, said: “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 Covid-19 symptoms are worsening or even initiating tinnitus and hearing loss. This is something that needs to be closely examined by both clinical and support services.”
Nodding towards the second lockdown, David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association and a co-author of the study, said “it’s vital that we don’t see the same mistakes as before when it comes to community health provision for people with tinnitus”.
“Poor treatment of tinnitus in the early stages often leads to much worse cases and severe tinnitus can have a huge impact on mental health,” he said.
While we don’t know how Covid-19 is causing hearing issues, we do know that viruses such as measles and mumps can damage the ear – either the cochlea with the delicate sensory cells or the hearing nerve. It may be that Covid is doing something similar.
If you are struggling with tinnitus or hearing loss, you should speak to your GP who will likely refer you to an ENT specialist. Find out more about living with tinnitus on the British Tinnitus Association website.