The suicide of Kent Taylor, the founder and CEO of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, has drawn attention to a possible link between Covid-19 and tinnitus, the medical name for a constant ringing in the ears.
Mr Taylor suffered from a variety of symptoms, including severe tinnitus, following his illness, his family said in a statement, adding that his condition has become “unbearable”.
Whether tinnitus is related to Covid-19 – and if so, how often it occurs – is an unanswered question. Neither the World Health Organization nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe tinnitus as a symptom, although hearing problems are common with other viral infections.
But tinnitus is on the list of symptoms of long covid published by the UK’s National Health Service, along with fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness and much more. Some recent case reports and studies have suggested a possible link.
A study published Monday in the Journal of International Audiology that examined nearly 60 case reports and studies found that 15 percent of adults with Covid-19 reported symptoms of tinnitus. The authors believe respondents described either a new or a worsening condition, although they follow up with the roughly 60 researchers to make sure how the surveys were worded.
“I’ve received about 100 emails in the 24 hours since we were published,” said Kevin Munro, professor of audiology at the University of Manchester and co-author of the study. “Almost all of them said, ‘I was so happy to read about it because my doctor thought I was crazy when I mentioned tinnitus and now I know I’m not the only one.'”
There is also evidence that Covid-19 can make symptoms worse in people who had tinnitus before they contracted the disease. A study published in Frontiers in Public Health magazine late last year surveyed 3,100 people with tinnitus and found that 40 percent of the 237 respondents who contracted Covid-19 said their symptoms were “significantly worse” after infection .
“There are many viruses that affect the ears, including measles, mumps, and rubella,” said Dr. Eldre Beukes, audiologist at Anglia Ruskin University in England, who led the study. “It could also be the case that drugs to fight Covid are making the tinnitus worse. And there’s a well-known relationship between tinnitus and stress. “
Recognition…Ron Bath / Texas Roadhouse, via Associated Press
The study cited a number of factors that have increased stress for almost all pandemic sufferers, including fear of contracting the coronavirus and social distancing rules that have increased isolation and loneliness.
Home schooling has also increased stress levels, as has coffee and alcohol consumption, added Dr. Beukes added.
Covid-19 has made life difficult for tinnitus sufferers even if they haven’t contracted the virus, said Kim Weller, an IT specialist who lives in Houston and is part of a tinnitus support group based there.
“There is a gentleman in Ohio that I text and phone with and I would describe him as at the end of his rope,” she said. “He doesn’t work, has trouble sleeping and lives alone. His situation is definitely worse because of Covid because he’s just so isolated. “
Why tinnitus affects certain people is a mystery. There are approximately 200 causes of the condition, including exposure to loud noises, stress, hearing loss, and perforated eardrum. There is currently no cure. Patients are often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy – essentially talk therapy to rewire thoughts and behaviors – or they are trained in how to get used to the condition.
In a 2011-2012 survey – the most recent data available – the CDC found that 15 percent of respondents said they had tinnitus. Of them, 26 percent said it was constant or near constant ringing, and 30 percent said the condition was a “moderate” or “very large” problem in their life.
A very small group of people in Dr. Beukes’ study – seven – reported that Covid-19 caused tinnitus for the first time. Just over half of people with tinnitus said the disease had left their symptoms unchanged.
Oddly enough, 6 percent said they had less tinnitus after contracting the disease. Dr. Beukes speculates that a life-threatening illness in these people caused the noise in their head to be redefined.
“Signing Covid meant they were struggling to survive in some cases, and that left them from a very different perspective,” she said.
Around 40 percent of respondents who said Covid-19 made their tinnitus worse include people like Aisling Starrs of Derry in Northern Ireland. She had coped with hearing loss in her right ear all her life. Two years ago she gave birth to a daughter and within minutes noticed a buzz in both ears that did not subside.
“Then I got Covid in September and it went straight into my ear,” said Ms. Starrs, an occupational therapist. “On a scale from one to ten, it was a three ahead of Covid. It’s been a seven since then. “
Little did she know that exacerbated tinnitus could be a Covid problem until she found out otherwise on the website of the British Tinnitus Association, a co-sponsor of the Anglia Ruskin study.
“I thought ‘thank god’ when I realized I wasn’t the only one out there,” she said. “Through my work I have met people who do not know that there is a medical term for the ringing in their ears. Just knowing that other people are in the same condition is a tremendous relief. “