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Hows and whys of tinnitus, and coping with the condition

Dear Savvy Senior: I’ve had mild tinnitus — ringing in my ears — for years. But when I got COVID-19 in January, it got worse. Are there any treatments you can recommend? — Almost 60

Dear Almost: Unfortunately, new research indicates COVID-19 can worsen or possibly even trigger tinnitus, a common hearing problem that affects about 50 million Americans. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and treatments.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NIGHT-us or TIN-a-tus) is the sensation of hearing a ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing or whistling sound in one or both ears when no external sound is present.

The sounds, which can vary in pitch and volume, are usually worse when background noise is low, so you may be more aware of it at night when you’re trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. For most people, tinnitus is merely annoying, but for others it can be extremely disturbing.

Tinnitus itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom of another underlying health condition. The best way to find out what’s causing your tinnitus is to see an audiologist or an otolaryngologist — a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat diseases (commonly called an ENT).

Some of the causes of tinnitus are:

>> Hearing loss, which is the most common cause.

>> Middle ear obstructions, usually a buildup of earwax deep in the ear canal.

>> Medication; tinnitus can be a side effect of prescription and nonprescription medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, specific blood pressure medicines, diuretics, specific anti­depressants, cancer medicines and antibiotics.

>> Medical conditions such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, diabetes, allergies, thyroid problems, ear or sinus infections, Meniere’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, otosclerosis, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, tumors, head or neck injury, traumatic brain injury, depression, stress and more.

Treatments

While there’s no cure for tinnitus, there are many ways to treat it, depending on the cause. If your tinnitus is caused by a wax buildup or a medical condition like high blood pressure or a thyroid problem, for example, treating the condition could reduce or eliminate the problem. If you think a medication may be causing the problem, switching to a different drug or lowering the dosage might provide some relief. If you have hearing loss, a hearing aid can help mask your tinnitus by improving your ability to hear actual sounds.

Another good option to ease the condition is sound therapy. This can be as simple as running a fan or a white-noise machine, listening to music or podcasts, or leaving the television on.

There are also apps created by hearing aid companies, such as ReSound Relief (ReSound.com) and Relax by Starkey (Starkey.com), that allow you to stream customized sounds directly to your hearing aids or Bluetooth audio devices such as headphones or speakers.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and psychological counseling can also be helpful. Your audiologist or ENT can help you figure out the best treatment options.

While there are currently no FDA-approved drugs to specifically treat tinnitus, some anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants have been effective in relieving symptoms.

Another way to help quiet the noise is to avoid food and drink that can aggravate the problem, such as salt, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, tonic water and caffeine. Tobacco is also something to avoid. Also, protect your ears from loud noises by wearing earplugs.

For more on tinnitus treatments, visit the American Tinnitus Association at ATA.org.


Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.


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