Tinnitus is an extremely annoying and sometimes destructive condition where the refuge of silence doesn’t exist: people with the ailment hear ringing, buzzing, humming, hissing or whistling noises at all times. It’s bad enough on its own. But are cases on the rise due in part to the ongoing pandemic?
That’s what’s happening in Australia, according to Melbourne-based outlet The Saturday Paper. According to a story published Friday, there’s been a “noticeable surge in tinnitus distress” over the last year and a half. Tinnitus Australia reports a massive increase in calls and messages to their helpline and social media accounts. The British Tinnitus Association, meanwhile, says web chats increased by 256 per cent last year, compared with the same period in 2019.
What causes tinnitus?
Sound waves travel through the ear canal, where they are transformed in the cochlea into electrical signals that enter the brain through the auditory nerve. When cells in the cochlea are damaged, the circuits in the brain don’t receive the right signals, which results in the illusion of sound, Harvard Health explains.
But there’s still a lot experts don’t fully understand about how this happens. Audiologist Myriam Westcott explained the condition to the Saturday Paper as a neurophysiological issue, where the noise is generated by the central nervous system.
It can also be caused by circulatory problems: the cochlea only functions properly if it has a very rich blood supply, according to the Cleveland Clinic — it’s a delicate system that can easily be damaged if blood isn’t circulating normally.
In some cases, tinnitus is relatively harmless, although the incessant noise can increase stress levels to such an significant degree that it can cause depression. In other cases, it can be an early sign of hearing loss, especially in older people.
According to recent data on tinnitus in Canada, 37 per cent of Canadian adults have the condition. It’s more common in men than women, and more common in people between the ages of 19 and 29 than older adults. Plus, women with tinnitus were more likely to report that it disrupted their mood, sleep and concentration.
There isn’t currently data to support a rise in tinnitus cases during the pandemic in Canada, but cases are also on the rise in the U.S. and in the Czech Republic. This March, after an American CEO died by suicide, his family told the Washington Post that he had been experiencing “post-COVID related symptoms, including severe tinnitus” at the time of his death.
Stress is bad for our bodies
There are a few reasons a rise in tinnitus cases could be related to the pandemic. One major one is that stress and anxiety — exceedingly and distressingly common during a global pandemic — are connected to tinnitus, although experts don’t fully understand how. A 2018 study pointed out the connection, as did another in 2020. Tinnitus can sometimes “act as an alarm signal” as a reaction to stressful situations, Healthline reports.
There are two sides to the rising cases of tinnitus, audiology researcher Dr. Eldré Beukes of Anglia Ruskin University told The Guardian: people who got tinnitus for the first time, either as a result of COVID or during the timeframe of the pandemic, and people with pre-existing tinnitus who report that it’s gotten worse in the last year and a half.
“We need more research to look into the different mechanics,” Beukes told the paper, “but the possible reason could be the virus itself impacting the ear and causing ear damage that can result in tinnitus and hearing loss.” It’s also possible that medication or other COVID treatments could be damaging to the inner ear.
Another symptom of long COVID
Tinnitus is also a common complaint in people with “long COVID,” the difficult and still mysterious combination of symptoms that linger in somewhere between 32 and 87 per cent of people months after they contracted the virus. (Some of the other ear, nose and throat symptoms include earaches, sore throat, loss of taste or smell and dizziness.) Of people with long COVID, 14.8 per cent suffered from tinnitus, according to a study published this March.
There’s no cure for tinnitus, but there are ways to manage symptoms. A doctor may be able to give a referral to an audiologist, who can perform tinnitus retraining therapy, which can involve a combination of sound masking and counselling. Cognitive behavioural therapy is also sometimes a treatment. In severe cases, medications, hearing aids or sound masking devices may be able to help lessen symptoms.
There’s still a lot about COVID and its effects that we don’t know. But as the Cleveland Clinic points out, there’s a clear need for more study on how the virus impacts the auditory system.