In Dark Times
If you believe you are experiencing ringing in your ears, especially during COVID-19, you are not alone.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic ensues, our daily lives have shifted dramatically. Gathering in the office and attending social events have been paused, and our “new normal” has led to a more isolated atmosphere. Yet adding to the list of unprecedented challenges, a new complication has surfaced: an increase in claims of “ears ringing”—otherwise known as tinnitus.
To help us understand more about tinnitus, we spoke with Dr. Alexandra Costlow, an audiologist at the Hearing and Balance Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who offers insight into this sudden shift in auditory perception.
The Truth About Tinnitus
Tinnitus is when an individual hears a continuous noise internally, originating in either ear, both ears or a central location within the head. These noises are characterized by sounds of ringing, buzzing, chirping, humming or even hearing “crickets.”
“Technically, tinnitus is caused by a change in hearing and can be both a condition and a symptom of an underlying problem—such as untreated hearing loss,” says Dr. Costlow. “The three main catalysts for this condition are hearing loss, lack of auditory input or a change in hearing. Even if the change in hearing is within a normal range, it can set the stage for this condition.”
Diagnosing tinnitus starts with perceptual monitoring. It is possible for these sounds to be benign—not occurring from a pathological condition—but if the sounds are accompanied by a noticeable change in hearing, dizziness or personal life interference, it is critical to speak with an audiologist right away.
Why Ears are Ringing During the Coronavirus
“Clinically, we have seen a rise in inquiries from patients about their ears ringing during COVID-19, and I believe this increase is because of pandemic-related changes,” said Dr. Costlow. “The reason for this uptick is multifactorial. Because we now spend so much time at home, interact with less people and work remotely, there are far fewer environmental sounds to mask tinnitus. Without as many distractions, people are more aware of their surroundings, and subsequently are aware of intrinsic sounds.”
Aside from potential underlying conditions, tinnitus can be triggered by environmental factors such as stress, anxiety and lack of quality sleep.
“Stress and poor sleep hygiene can absolutely tip the scale when it comes to developing tinnitus—it can really be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The pandemic has brought on a newfound layer of stress with the unknowns of when life will return to ‘normal,’ causing some people to struggle to fall or stay asleep. With this challenging new sleep pattern, it wouldn’t be unusual to see an increased prevalence of this condition,” said Dr. Costlow.
If you believe you are experiencing ringing in your ears, especially during COVID-19, you are not alone. Over 45 million Americans are living with tinnitus. While 20 million of these individuals experience chronic tinnitus, roughly 2 million of these people live with a debilitating condition. But with the right diagnosis and treatment plan, proper management can guide you on a path to a happy and healthy life.
“Your first step after becoming aware of any ringing is to monitor it closely. If you experience a sudden onset of pain and dizziness, you need to be evaluated medically,” said Dr. Costlow. “But in less severe cases, the right tools can help your body adapt to the noise and begin to ignore it.”
Common techniques and strategies used to mitigate tinnitus symptoms are environmental masking, such as using a white noise machine, and staying mentally engaged. Distracting your mind with small activities and apps for guided relaxation can help redirect your brain’s attention. There are also several support groups available offered by the American Tinnitus Association if you’re finding it hard to cope alone.
“The best thing you can do for tinnitus is to avoid silence. Fill your environment with pleasant, soft sounds. If you develop a more severe or debilitating condition, speak with your audiologist to rule out any more serious underlying medical problems,” said Dr. Costlow. “In most cases, tinnitus is treatable and manageable—but if you’re struggling, it’s important to reach out.”