COVID-19 & Tinnitus: Can the Virus Cause Ringing in Your Ears?

Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor killed himself after suffering from "severe" tinnitus and other "unbearable" post-COVID-19 symptoms

COVID-19 & Tinnitus: Can the Virus Cause Ringing in Your Ears?

After reports that Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor killed himself after suffering from "severe" tinnitus and other "unbearable" post-COVID-19 symptoms, many people want to understand a possible connection between hearing problems and the virus. Here's what to know about tinnitus, its symptoms, and what researchers have found in coronavirus patients.

What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is often called a "ringing in the ears." The condition happens when there is a problem within your auditory system — your ear, the auditory nerve connecting the inner ear and brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound, according to the HHS. That could mean a piece of earwax is stuck in the ear canal, but it could also be a medication side effect or caused by other health conditions like hearing loss, ear or sinus infections, disease, brain tumors, or brain damage, hormonal changes or thyroid issues.

Symptoms of Tinnitus

While it is commonly described as a "ringing in the ears," people with tinnitus experience a range of noises in the ear even though the sound is not actually there around them, according to the MayoClinic. Only they can hear the sound in their ear. Those sounds can include:

  • Ringing
  • Buzzing
  • Clicking
  • Roaring
  • Hissing
  • Humming
These sounds can be constant or come and go. They can also vary in intensity. Some people may not hear anything at all, while others may hear the sounds so loud that it interferes with their daily life. That can lead to a host of side effects:
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Headaches
  • Problems with work and family life

Tinnitus & COVID-19

It's known that viral infections like the flu can lead to tinnitus due to nasal congestion or a sinus infection creating pressure in the middle ear and impacting hearing — though more research is needed to fully understand how a COVID-19 infection specifically affects those conditions. But early studies have found that the condition may be worsened or even triggered in people who contract the virus.

Authors in the studies below hypothesize that entry of COVID-19 into the ear can lead to inflammation, cell stress, or damage to the auditory system, which may contribute to the development of tinnitus.

One study of 3,100 people in mostly the U.S. and U.K. found that 40% of people with COVID-19 symptoms reported that their tinnitus had worsened since contracting the virus. And some patients said the condition began with the symptoms. And seven patients in the study reported that tinnitus was initiated by COVID-19 symptoms. Other small studies found similar instances of COVID-19 patients reporting hearing issues or tinnitus.

And a case report published in December found a 35-year-old woman who recovered from COVID-19 at home had later sought medical help because of ringing and reduced hearing in her left ear. Tests and studies found a connection between viral infection and damage to her auditory system. Another report in October found a similar case in a 45-year-old patient.

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