Tinnitus occurs when you hear a noise that’s not coming from your surroundings. It’s often described as a ringing in the ears, but it can also have other qualities, such as buzzing, humming, or whooshing.

Many people experience tinnitus. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that in the past year, 10 percent of adults in the United States have had tinnitus lasting at least 5 minutes.

Several things can cause tinnitus. One possible cause is acoustic trauma, which is an inner ear injury usually brought on by a very loud noise. Other possible causes are inner ear conditions like Meniere disease and certain medications.

Tinnitus has also been linked with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This article will explore that link in greater detail, as well as what to do if you experience tinnitus.

Some people who develop COVID-19 (as a result of contracting the virus) have reported experiencing tinnitus.

However, detailed descriptions of the tinnitus during COVID-19 are lacking. Some information that currently remains unclear is:

  • the severity of the tinnitus
  • when the tinnitus starts
  • how long the tinnitus lasts

The reason why COVID-19 may lead to tinnitus is still unknown. Tinnitus during COVID-19 is generally believed to be caused by damage or inflammation in the inner ear, which may happen due to viral infection or as a result of your body’s immune response.

A 2021 systematic review estimated that 14.8 percent of people who developed COVID-19 experienced tinnitus as a symptom. However, another 2021 review of studies found the estimated rate of tinnitus in COVID-19 to be lower, at 4.5 percent.

It’s important to note that in many of the studies included in these reviews, it was unclear if researchers were discussing people with new or preexisting tinnitus.

Having COVID-19 may also make preexisting tinnitus worse for some people. A 2020 survey study found that, out of 237 people with tinnitus who developed COVID-19, 40 percent reported that their tinnitus worsened.

It also appears that pandemic-related stresses may make preexisting tinnitus worse. For example, a 2021 study compared 188 people’s experiences with tinnitus in 2019 and 2020. The researchers found that:

  • Reported anxiety levels were significantly higher in 2020 than in 2019.
  • High levels of reported anxiety were associated with an increased effect of tinnitus on emotions and ability to function, particularly in 2020.
  • High levels of reported anxiety were not associated with increased tinnitus loudness.
  • Treatments like sound therapy and educational counseling were less effective at relieving anxiety and alleviating tinnitus in 2020.

While stress from the pandemic may make tinnitus worse, seeking out support can help. A 2021 study found that doing things like reaching out to loved ones, spending time outdoors, and seeking relaxation all helped reduce tinnitus distress.

The COVID-19 vaccines that are authorized for emergency use are both safe and effective at preventing serious illness due to COVID-19.

Some of the most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines include:

  • injection site pain
  • fever
  • aches and pains

While rare, tinnitus has been reported after vaccination. The British Tinnitus Association reported that tinnitus made up about 1.5 percent of the 317,043 reports of side effects after vaccination in the United Kingdom.

The large-scale trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines did not observe tinnitus as a side effect of vaccination, although a 2021 study reported three people who developed tinnitus in the hours or weeks after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

In 2 out of the 3 people, tinnitus quickly went away. The exact reason they developed tinnitus is unclear. The researchers hypothesized that an unexpected immune response or vaccination-related anxiety may have contributed.

Six instances of tinnitus were reported in the large-scale trials of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but there was not enough evidence to conclude that the vaccine was the primary cause of tinnitus. It was noted that underlying health conditions could have made it more likely for them to develop this side effect.

While being important for our sense of hearing, the inner ear is also vital for our sense of balance. The structures and tissues involved in this are referred to as the vestibular system.

In addition to tinnitus, COVID-19 has also been associated with several other symptoms that affect the auditory or vestibular system. These include:

How COVID-19 may lead to these symptoms is unknown. Many of the potential explanations are similar to those that have been proposed for tinnitus, such as direct viral infection or the effects of the body’s immune response.

Whether or not your tinnitus is due to COVID-19, there are some things to try at home that may help:

  • Reducing stress levels. Reducing your stress levels can help you cope with tinnitus and prevent it from becoming worse. A few examples of stress-reducing activities you can look into include:
  • Masking the noise. It may be helpful to try to mask the noise using a different, more pleasant sound. An example would be purchasing a portable sound generator or downloading a white noise app onto your phone.
  • Developing a sleep routine. Tinnitus can often affect sleep. Because of this, it’s important to develop a bedtime routine that promotes good sleep.
  • Avoiding loud noises. Being in a very noisy environment can make tinnitus worse. As such, aim to avoid being around loud noises. If you’re headed into a noisy environment, be sure to use hearing protection.
  • Trying an alternative treatment. While more research is needed, some people may find that things like acupuncture or supplements help with tinnitus. However, some supplements may interact with medications, so always check with your doctor before using them.

It may be time to make an appointment with your doctor if you have tinnitus that:

  • happens frequently or is constant
  • gets noticeably worse
  • significantly impacts your quality of life

Your doctor will work with you to determine what’s causing your tinnitus.

It’s also possible they’ll refer you to a specialist called an otolaryngologist. Otolaryngologists are commonly called ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors.

Tinnitus has been reported in people who’ve developed COVID-19. However, more research is needed to understand the characteristics of this tinnitus and how the novel coronavirus causes it.

People with preexisting tinnitus have also experienced worsening tinnitus during the pandemic. This can be due to contracting COVID-19 or the general stresses associated with the pandemic itself.

Tinnitus can also happen after COVID-19 vaccination. However, this side effect is considered rare. The reason behind it is unknown, although underlying health conditions, vaccination anxiety, or unexpected immune responses may play a role.

You can try to ease tinnitus at home by masking the noise, finding ways to reduce stress, and avoiding loud noises.

See your doctor if you have tinnitus that is frequent, has gotten worse, or disrupts your daily life.