More people are complaining of developing tinnitus for the first time or have found their symptoms have worsened since the start of the pandemic, according to scientists and other leading experts who specialise in the condition.
The British Tinnitus Association (BTA) has reported a surge in the number of people accessing its services, with a 256% increase in the number of web chats from May to December 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Calls to its helpline rose by 16% during the same period.
Tinnitus – the term used to describe sounds such as ringing, whooshing or humming coming from an internal source rather than externally – affects about 7 million people in the UK.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recognised tinnitus as a common symptom of Covid-19 and long-Covid in guidelines on managing the long-term effects of the virus in December 2020. Tinnitus-related searches on Google have soared following the outbreak of Covid-19, with searches for “tinnitus causes” jumping 83% in February 2021 compared with February 2020, while searches for “tinnitus” grew by 50% over the same period, according to data collated by software company SEMrush.
David Stockdale, the BTA chief executive, said: “Calls to our helpline and visits to our website have really increased as people are looking for support, and they’re struggling to get through the healthcare system. For a lot of people, the emotional and social consequence [of Covid-19] has made tinnitus worse.”
Dr Eldré Beukes, a research fellow in audiology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “There are two sides to this – people who have got tinnitus now, either from Covid or just during the pandemic, and people with pre-existing tinnitus reporting that it’s worse. We need more research to look into the different mechanics, but the possible reason could be the virus itself impacting the ear and causing ear damage that can result in tinnitus and hearing loss.
“Another possible theory is that the medication received in hospital while having Covid could have damaged the inner ear.”
Aisling Starrs, 38, a co-facilitator of a tinnitus support group, lives in Derry and has had tinnitus for the past two years but says her symptoms have intensified since she had Covid-19 in September 2020.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been,” she said. “The level of noise in my left ear has gone from a three to a seven. Six months later, and it hasn’t gone. It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between external noises and my tinnitus. If I’m in the house on my own, I’m always thinking: have I left an appliance on?”
For those experiencing tinnitus, Beukes advised: “It’s important to know that help is available and you’re not alone. There’s help from the British Tinnitus Association and online support groups. And yoga, CBT, and sound-based apps that provide nature sounds to distract from tinnitus can help.”
A study by the BTA and Anglia Ruskin University found that nearly half (46%) of UK sufferers said that their tinnitus has been made worse during the pandemic, and four out of 10 people who had Covid-19 symptoms reported that their tinnitus was more bothersome.
The BTA is calling for 1% of the £750m cost of treating tinnitus to be given to research to find cures. Some 125,000 people have signed a petition backing the call.