What Is Tinnitus? Auditory Condition May Be Linked to COVID-19—Here's What to Know

Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor, 65, died by suicide after a coronavirus infection led to the severe auditory condition.

Texas Roadhouse announced this week that the company's CEO died by suicide Thursday after suffering from severe tinnitus linked to a recent COVID-19 infection.

Kent Taylor "battled and fought hard like the former track champion that he was, but the suffering that greatly intensified in recent days became unbearable," reads a joint statement given to Health by Taylor's family and Texas Roadhouse. Taylor, 65, had recently committed to fund a clinical study to help military members who also suffer from tinnitus.

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"We are saddened by the decision Kent felt he needed to make and want to emphasize more than ever the importance of reaching out for help if you or someone you love is suffering," the statement says.

Now, people are flooding Twitter with their own stories of tinnitus after COVID-19. "I have tinnitus that is post covid," one wrote. "Several months later I lost hearing in one ear."

"I, too, have recently developed severe tinnitus post-Covid and it can be a form of torture," another person said. Others shared that they had tinnitus with COVID-19 that got better with time. "It was maddening and depressing," one person wrote. "Fortunately my symptoms improved. But, for a few weeks there, it was bad."

Taylor's story is tragic, and it's terrifying that others have also experienced tinnitus linked to COVID-19. Here's what you need to know about the condition.

What is tinnitus, exactly?

Tinnitus is an auditory condition that causes a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing sound in the ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Tinnitus may cause a soft or loud sound that is high or low pitched. It can also appear in one or both ears.

"Patients have described it as buzzing, ringing, crickets chirping, or the sound of bacon on a frying pan," Richard Salvi, PhD., co-founder and director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Hearing and Deafness, tells Health. "There are a lot of different perceptions that people have."

Deyanira Gonzalez, Au.D., an audiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health that tinnitus can cause a sound that's "barely audible in quiet, or can be loud enough to be noticeable even with background noise."

There is a range that people experience with tinnitus, with some having more severe cases of the condition than others. "For people with severe tinnitus, the sound is constant and never stops, which makes it really difficult to deal with," Salvi says. "Especially when you try to go to sleep in a quiet room. It follows you around all the time."

At least 10% of the adult population of the U.S. has had tinnitus in the past year that lasts for at least five minutes, the NIDCD says.

Before you panic and assume you have tinnitus the next time you hear a ring or buzz, know this: It's normal to have random little sounds here and there. "While most of us experience a few seconds of ringing every now and then, you should see a specialist if the tinnitus is constant for more than 48 hours or if it has a pulsating quality," Gonzalez says.

So, is tinnitus a symptom of COVID-19?

This one is a little tricky. Currently, tinnitus isn't mentioned on the list of COVID-19 symptoms from either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or World Health Organization (WHO), but there are plenty of people who say they've developed tinnitus after having the virus.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Audiology also found a link. For the study, researchers analyzed 28 case reports and 28 cross-sectional studies and found that up to 15% of adults who are diagnosed with COVID-19 have some kind of hearing issue, including tinnitus. In fact, tinnitus was the most common audiology issue people experienced, followed by hearing difficulties and vertigo (i.e. dizziness).

COVID-19 may even make existing tinnitus worse. A study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health polled 3,103 people with tinnitus around the world and found that 40% had worse hearing symptoms from COVID-19.

"It's entirely possible that COVID-19 can cause tinnitus," Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Health. Other viruses, like ones that can cause ear and sinus infections, can also cause tinnitus, he points out.

The reason why isn't entirely clear, but there are some theories. One is that COVID-19 can cause an "overreaction" of your immune system, which leads to a disruption between your ear and your brain, Salvi says.

It could also be due to inflammation, Aaron Moberly, MD, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. Tinnitus "can result from something wrong in the auditory system—the ear or the brain. Thus, it could relate to lots of different things, such as hearing loss, infection, or an inflammatory response that is affecting the ear," he says.

Can tinnitus occur after the COVID-19 vaccine?

This is also a little complicated. The Food and Drug Administration's data on clinical trials for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 says that six people who received the vaccine experienced tinnitus. Of those, five recovered or were recovering from the condition. The FDA briefing document says this: "Data at this time are insufficient to determine a causal relationship between these events and the vaccine."

Given that other things, including natural aging, can cause tinnitus, it's hard to say for sure whether the vaccine caused the tinnitus, Robert Jyung, M.D., director of otology/neurotology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Health. "We have to be careful not to overemphasize some of those side effects because we don't know for sure whether the vaccine was causative," he says.

While it's hard to say for sure, it is possible, though, that the patients who developed tinnitus after receiving the vaccine may have had a "systemic reaction" to the vaccine, Gonzalez says.

How is tinnitus treated?

If you develop tinnitus, your doctor will usually recommend that you undergo a hearing test, Dr. Mehdizadeh says, noting the results of your test can dictate next steps.

There is no cure for tinnitus, but there are a few treatments that may help. Tinnitus can be linked to hearing loss—the ear overcompensates for a lack of sound and tinnitus is the result, Salvi says—and hearing aids can be helpful in those situations.

If your doctor suspects that your tinnitus is the result of a virus (including COVID-19), they may recommend you take an anti-inflammatory or prescription steroid medication, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.

Wearable sound generators or tabletop sound generators can also help create pleasant sounds to drown out the tinnitus, the NIDCD says.

Therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, may also help. "We try to help patients not form a negative emotional response to their tinnitus, Dr. Jyung says. "The goal is to disconnect a negative emotional response from the awareness of tinnitus itself so that it doesn't cause anxiety or depression."

While tinnitus goes away for some people over time, it can linger for others—and that includes COVID-19 patients. "For people who have experienced tinnitus following COVID-19, there has not been enough data, but in clinic we have seen patients that had tinnitus for a few days, weeks, or for a couple of months, or continue to experience tinnitus," Gonzalez says. "It should be noted that not everyone has experienced it, and it can be hard to determine if tinnitus was truly a result from COVID-19 or other factors."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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