Matthew Willis hasn’t enjoyed a moment of peace and quiet since catching COVID-19 in November.
“It’s a sort of very high-pitched kind of … whistle or just a tone,” the 42-year-old explained to Global News. “And there’s a bit of … white noise behind it.”
Willis’s condition is known as tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. It’s believed to have a range of causes, from infection, head injury and hearing loss to certain medications and even stress.
But some research is also linking it to COVID-19.
What is tinnitus's connection to COVID-19?
Tinnitus affects an estimated 37 per cent of Canadians, according to a Statistics Canada report from 2019.
Earlier this year, a group of researchers found almost 15 per cent of COVID-19 patients surveyed complained of it but noted the number could be an over-estimate “because it was not always clear that studies report a change in symptom.”
Rex Banks, director of Audiology at Canadian Hearing Services, said he’s heard the post-virus tinnitus complaints and explained the possible reasons.
There’s the possibility, Banks said, the white noise may have always been there but pandemic-related stress or even isolation could intensify it.
“During the pandemic, people are spending more time alone, for example, they may be spending more time in silence, meaning that they may become more aware of their tinnitus,” Banks said but added there is another theory.
“It could be that in fact, the vaccine or COVID is sort of triggering (these) inner hair cells to exacerbate their existing tinnitus. Just like it’s affecting smell or taste,” the audiologist told Global News.
Over the last year, scientists have studied the inner ears of both humans and mice. They found the coronavirus does have the ability to infect some of the cells, which can cause problems with hearing and balance.
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COVID-19 vaccines and tinnitus
A recent study published this month noted that “the precise mechanism behind vaccine-induced tinnitus remains undetermined, leaving room for future studies.”
But experts have made it clear: the ramification is rare and protection from severe illness and hospitalization outweighs the risk.
Teresa Huff has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with the mRNA Moderna shot.
Amid the Omicron wave, like so many, the Eastport, Long Island resident caught what she calls a “mild” case of the virus.
It’s what she’s experienced post-infection that has her searching for answers.
“I noticed it the first week of February,” the 53-year-old said. “It’s like a whooshing white noise, occasionally there might be a ringing sound.”
Huff said her tinnitus is worse at night and it’s interrupting her ability to fall asleep.
“It’s definitely something I’m hyper-aware of now, and it seems to be getting louder and louder,” she said.
Meanwhile, Willis, who is boosted, said he thought his tinnitus would fade, like the rest of his COVID-19 symptoms.
“I have to find ways to try and concentrate, and I’m not fixating on the on the on the sound the whole time,” the Southampton, England resident told Global News via Zoom.
There is no cure for tinnitus, according to Banks, but some medical experts have reported successfully treating suspected vaccine-induced tinnitus with corticosteroids.
Banks said managing the constant noise is possible and that the first step is to rule out any underlying health conditions.
“Hearing loss would be one of the first things we want to address,” Banks told Global News.
“Many people benefit from wearing a hearing aid because that will give your auditory system something else to listen to besides the tinnitus. But beyond that, it is frustrating.”
Experts also suggest cognitive behavioural therapy or tinnitus retraining therapy, which use counselling and sound therapy together to train your subconscious to ignore the hum.
“Try to avoid silence because when you are alone, this is when you’re going to hear your tinnitus more,” Banks explained.
Huff said she recently tried the sound of crickets to get her to sleep, “but I just eventually end turning that off because (it’s) one noise replacing another noise.”
While Huff said she is certainly annoyed by the symptom, she knows she will have to learn to live with it.
“We just have to adapt like everything else lately,” she said. “We just have to move forward and adapt.”