Hearing impairments are more common than you might think — with 1 in 8 adults in the UK experiencing tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and over 12 million people living with hearing loss.¹,²
Recent reports have suggested that there is a link between tinnitus, hearing loss and COVID-19 (Sars-Cov-2) - some of which has now been consolidated by official research from the World Health Organisation. So, to help you understand the latest research around COVID-19 and hearing conditions, we’ve put together this guide.

Is tinnitus a symptom of COVID-19?

Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears that can begin suddenly or develop gradually over time. While this can occur for a variety of reasons, from earwax build-up to loud noise exposure, there is some evidence that links tinnitus to coronavirus. A survey by the Manchester University Hospitals NHS Trust found that 13.2% of patients reported a change of hearing and/or tinnitus after being diagnosed with COVID-19, and just over 5% reported developing tinnitus.³ A more recent analysis of 24 coronavirus studies found that 14.8% experienced tinnitus as a symptom.⁴

Is there a link between long Covid and tinnitus?

Research has now been published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that suggests tinnitus and other hearing issues, as well as blurred vision, could be an indication of long Covid. This information became public in October 2021, when the WHO officially released their clinical case definition of ‘post COVID-19 condition’ - also known as long Covid. A definition they had established through a large, global consensus process.⁵

In their findings, the WHO found that 45% of people that took part in the study rated tinnitus and other hearing issues as critical to include when asked how important the symptom was to the clinical case definition of post COVID-19 conditions.⁵

Will COVID-19 make my pre-existing tinnitus worse?

Recent research has also looked into whether having coronavirus can worsen pre-existing conditions, including tinnitus. An Anglia Ruskin University study of 3,103 people with tinnitus found that 40% of those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 simultaneously experienced a worsening of their tinnitus.⁶ A small number of participants in this study also reported that their condition was in fact initially triggered by developing COVID-19, which has later been confirmed by the WHO’s inclusion of tinnitus and other hearing issues as a symptom in their definition of long Covid.⁷,⁵ While this is rare, and further research is needed to fully explore this potential link, it’s important to consider if you have a pre-existing hearing condition.

Beyond COVID-19, it is possible that some people with pre-existing hearing conditions may experience worsening symptoms due to the overall impact of the pandemic. For example, lockdowns and lifestyle changes may have caused some of us to feel more isolated, anxious or stressed.⁸

Missed appointments are another factor to consider. If your scheduled appointments with your audiologist or GP have been cancelled for any reason, it’s important to rebook them as soon as possible.

Can the COVID-19 vaccination cause tinnitus or make it worse?

Tinnitus is not widely recognised as a side effect of the covid vaccinations, however, based on current data, the British Tinnitus Association has classified the onset or worsening of tinnitus as a rare adverse effect of the coronavirus vaccinations.⁹

Their conclusion was based on the data in the safety update report of 29 September 2021 from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).⁹ The MHRA estimated that by this point 48.8 million first doses and around 44.8 million second doses of the vaccines had been administered in the UK. Of these, fewer than 1 in 8,250 vaccinated people reported tinnitus as a side effect.⁹

It’s important to remember that all vaccines and medicines have some side effects, and the expected benefits of the coronavirus vaccines in preventing COVID-19 far outweigh any currently known side effects.¹⁰ What is more, the coronavirus vaccination is recognised by the UK government as the single most effective way to reduce deaths and severe illness from COVID-19.¹⁰

Can COVID-19 cause hearing loss?

Current research shows that most people who contract COVID-19 do not experience hearing loss as a symptom. However, there is some evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can cause hearing loss in rare cases.¹¹,⁴ Recent research looked into the link between COVID-19 and audio-vestibular symptoms across 24 studies.⁴ Scientists found that, in people who were infected by COVID-19, 7.6% experienced hearing loss, 14.8% experienced tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and 7.2% experienced rotatory vertigo (feelings of spinning and dizziness).⁴ The WHO have now also linked ‘hearing issues’ to long Covid, identifying it at a symptom in their recent definition of post COVID-19 condition.⁵ In some rare cases then, coronavirus can be known to impact your hearing, as well as your balance. It is important to know that hearing loss related to COVID-19 is not typically the first or only sign of the virus, and it usually occurs alongside more common symptoms such as a dry, persistent cough and high temperature. As the weather gets colder, or allergy season sets in, it’s also worth remembering that our ears can be affected by a number of seasonal illnesses, such as the common cold or flu. So, if you’re not experiencing other symptoms associated with coronavirus, it’s more likely that you’re just feeling a little under the weather.

How does COVID-19 and hearing loss impact mental health?

COVID-19 has been a difficult time for us all, including those who experience hearing loss. Research funded by The Deafness Support Network has shown that the pandemic is having a significant impact on the mental health of over 70s with hearing difficulties. Most of this vulnerable group have been advised to ‘shield’, which can worsen experiences of depression, loneliness and cognitive issues ranging from function to memory difficulty.12

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can find out more information on how hearing loss impacts mental health here. Alternatively, read our article for more information on how face masks can impact people with hearing loss.

I have a hearing condition and I suspect I have COVID-19 — what should I do?

If you’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, suspect you might have COVID-19, or have recently received a positive COVID test result, it’s important that you don’t visit your GP or audiologist. Instead, you’ll need to follow the official government guidance and contact the NHS 111 helpline for further information.

Does a pre-existing hearing condition increase the risk of developing COVID-19?

There is no research evidence to suggest that having a pre-existing hearing condition, such as tinnitus or hearing loss, increases a person’s risk of developing COVID-19.

Everything you need to know about Coronavirus

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References
  1. Action on Hearing Loss, Tinnitus (no date). Available online at: https://actiononhearingloss.org.uk/information-and-support/tinnitus/ [accessed 21/10/20]
  2. Action on Hearing Loss, Coronavirus Policy (2020). Available online at: https://actiononhearingloss.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/coronavirus-policy-statement/ [accessed 21/10/20]
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