Dear Savvy Senior,
I’ve had mild tinnitus—ringing in my ears—for years, but when I got COVID in January it got worse. Are there any treatments you know of or can recommend that can help?
Unfortunately, new research indicates that tinnitus, a common hearing problem that affects around 50 million Americans, may be worsened by COVID-19 or possibly even triggered by it. Here’s what you should know along with some tips and treatments that may help.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NIGHT-us or TIN-a-tus) 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 loudness, are usually worse when background noise is low, so you may be more aware of it at night when you’re 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 some other underlying health condition. The best way to find out what’s 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 things that can cause tinnitus are:
• Hearing loss, which is the most common cause.
• Middle ear obstructions usually caused by a build-up of earwax deep in the ear canal.
• The side effects of many different prescription and nonprescription medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen, certain blood pressure medicines and 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’s 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 problem may reduce or eliminate the noise. Or, if you think a medication you’re taking may be causing the problem, switching to a different drug, or lowering the dosage may provide some relief. Or 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 so it’s less bothersome are “sound therapies.” These can be as simple as 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, like ReSound Relief (ReSound.com) or Relax by Starkey (Starkey.com), which allow you to stream customize sounds directly to your hearing aids, or (if you don’t use hearing aids) 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 currently there’s no FDA approved drugs specifically designed to treat tinnitus, some antianxiety drugs 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. And protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs.
For more information on tinnitus treatments, visit the American Tinnitus Association at ATA.org.