What is Covid ear? Tinnitus and hearing problems explained

Stephen Fairfield, the owner of Fairfield Hearing in Edinburgh, says a little known sign of Covid is causing ongoing issues for some.

The ZOE study has highlighted that hearing problems affected 20 per cent of patients with Covid
The ZOE study has highlighted that hearing problems affected 20 per cent of patients with Covid

It’s now over two years since Covid turned our world upside down. Our understanding of the virus has improved greatly over this time and with the new less life-threatening variants we are gradually moving on.

However, for those badly affected by the virus, and particularly for those with long Covid, the impact remains.

While the symptoms of high temperature, tickly cough and loss of taste and smell were well documented as signs of catching the virus, perhaps less well known was the impact on the ear.

Stephen Fairfield, from Fairfield Hearing, explained: “The ear is connected to the back of the throat through the eustacian tube, and infections in the lungs and throat can cause temporary hearing loss and earache. These symptoms did present with Covid cases from the start of the pandemic, though the effect was less commonly reported than other issues.

“However, new research from the Kings College London ZOE Covid survey, run by Tim Spectre, found that 20 per cent of Covid cases developed tinnitus. In about half of these cases the symptoms lasted only a few days, but in the remaining cases it lasted for several months and longer.”

Case study

Jackie Mitchell first caught Covid back in September 2021, but the problems with a second dose of it in April this year have had a more serious impact.

She said: “What started out as a cold soon became more, and annoyingly the side effects are lasting longer than me or my doctor hoped. The first time I had Covid I lost my sense of smell, which still hasn’t fully recovered – this time I lost my voice, then my hearing in both ears.

“Six weeks on my hearing is still not back to normal. It is still very muffled in one ear with constant tinnitus, which is really intrusive and draining. I’ve found myself desperately googling information to try to find good advice on how best to manage it, and how long it is likely to last.

“Expert advice and support has been so hard to find, it’s all so unknown for now.”

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus, defined as the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound, is quite common, but usually transient, and doesn’t affect individuals significantly. For some though, it can be a serious issue with significant life-impact.

Stephen added: “We’re still unsure as to how Covid actually impacts the ear. The short-term impacts may simply be the result of congestion behind the eardrum. In the longer term, it may be that the general reduction in oxygen supply during Covid causes permanent damage to the inner ear hair cells, leaving permanent hearing loss and tinnitus as a result. Or it could be that centres deeper in the brain are being affected.”

Is it all down to Covid?

With this virus being relatively new, and one that has evolved over the pandemic, it is hard to know what is caused by Covid and what indirectly related, or not related at all.

Stephen said: “It’s important to remember that tinnitus can be accentuated by stress, and that the lifestyle changes and emotional impact of the past two years could be a factor in this too.

“So, we are still some way from understanding the fully impact of Covid on ears, and the exact relationship of cause and effect, but there is no doubt that there is one and that for many, particularly long Covid sufferers, the impact is significant.”

If you are worried about changes to your hearing, and want to discuss it with a professional in Edinburgh, you can book a full audiological assessment with Fairfield Hearing on 0131 378 5800 or visit them online at https://fairfieldhearing.earsure.health