I have had mild tinnitus – ringing in my ears – for years, but when I got COVID-19 in January it got worse. Are there any treatments that can help?
Unfortunately, new research indicates that tinnitus, a common hearing problem that affects around 50 million Americans, may be worsened or possibly triggered by COVID-19. Here is what you should know along with some tips and treatments that may help.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing a ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing or whistling sound in one or both ears when no external sound is present.
The sounds, which can vary in pitch and volume, are usually worse when background noise is low. You may be more aware of it at night when you are trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. For most people, tinnitus is merely annoying, but for many others it can be extremely disturbing.
Tinnitus itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying health condition. The best way to find out what is causing your tinnitus is to see an audiologist, or an otolaryngologist – a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat diseases (commonly called an ENT). The various causes of tinnitus are:
- Hearing loss, which is the most common cause.
- Middle ear obstructions usually caused by a buildup of earwax deep in the ear canal.
- Side effects from many different prescription and nonprescription medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, certain blood pressure medicines, diuretics, some antidepressants, cancer medicines and antibiotics.
- Various medical conditions such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, diabetes, allergies, thyroid problems, ear or sinus infections, Meniere's disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, otosclerosis, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a tumor, an injury to the head or neck, traumatic brain injury, depression, stress and more.
While there is no cure for tinnitus, there are many ways to treat it, depending on the cause. For example, if your tinnitus is caused by a wax build-up in your ears or a medical condition like high blood pressure or a thyroid problem, treating the underlying problem may reduce or eliminate the noise. If you think a medication you are taking may be causing the problem, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor may switch you to a different drug or lower the dosage to provide some relief. If you have hearing loss, getting a hearing aid can help mask your tinnitus by improving your ability to hear actual sounds.
Another good treatment option for tinnitus that can help suppress or mask the sound is "sound therapy." This can be as simple as running a fan or a white noise machine, listening to music or podcasts or leaving the television on.
There are also apps created by hearing aid companies which allow you to stream custom sounds directly to your hearing aids. If you do not use hearing aids, these custom sounds can be played through Bluetooth audio devices like headphones or speakers to help you manage your symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and psychological counseling can also be helpful. Your audiologist or ENT can help you figure out the best treatment options.
There are also certain medications that may help. While there are no FDA approved drugs specifically designed to treat tinnitus, some antianxiety medications and antidepressants have been effective in relieving symptoms.
Other things you can do to help quiet the noise is to avoid things that can aggravate the problem like salt, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, tonic water, tobacco and caffeine. Protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs.
For more information on tinnitus treatments, visit the American Tinnitus Association at ATA.org