- Tinnitus — a persistent ringing in the ears — appears to be emerging as a COVID-19 after-effect.
- One early study said that some 15% of COVID patients report the symptom.
- A UK charity reported a 256% spike in calls related to tinnitus since the pandemic began.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Evidence is mounting that COVID-19 could be linked to an unpleasant and potentially debilitating ringing in the ears.
The link between the persistent buzzing in the ears — also called tinnitus — and mental health was highlighted recently by Kent Taylor’s death by suicide.
The 65-year-old founder of the restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse died on March 18 after what his family described as “a battle with post-COVID related symptoms, including severe tinnitus.”
A UK charity reported a spike in queries related to tinnitus between May and December 2020, The Guardian reported, with 256% of its normal call volume in those months.
A preliminary study published on March 21 found that 15% of people who had COVID-19 reported having tinnitus. 7.6% reported hearing loss, and 7.2% reported vertigo, which is also related to the ears.
Dr. Kevin Munro, a professor of audiology at the University of Manchester, and lead author on the study, told The New York Times that within 24 hours of publishing the study, he received about 100 emails from grateful patients saying that their doctor were dismissive of their symptoms.
“We are waiting for a high quality, definitive study to confirm this number,” Munro told Insider in an email.
To date, it is not clear if tinnitus is a consequence of COVID-19 infection.
“We know that some viruses can damage the ear so this is possible with SARS-CoV-2,” Munro told Insider, using the scientific name for the coronavirus.
Measles, mumps and meningitis can also cause hearing difficulties.
But “tinnitus is often more bothersome when we are anxious and stressed and not sleeping well,” Munro said, all of which have been on the rise during pandemic lockdowns.
Tinnitus is often characterised as a ringing in the ears, but can also sound like buzzing, hissing or clicking.
One social media user described his “post-COVID tinnitus” as a “cicada invasion” in a tweet:
About 15% of the public experience tinnitus and 2 million americans have “debilitating cases” of tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association.
The UK’s National Health Service lists tinnitus as a common side effect both in people who have COVID-19 and those who recover.
The US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation do not, The New York Times reported.
One of the issues is that there is no diagnostic test for tinnitus, Munro told Insider in an email.
In most cases, tinnitus is called “subjective,” meaning that only the patient can hear the noise, although in some rare cases, the doctor can actually hear the tinnitus on examination.
“Until we have a diagnostic test then clinicians have to rely on self-report in the medical history,” Munro said.
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