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Spring Allergies and Your Hearing

Spring is here, and that means a lot of good things. But if you’re prone to spring allergies, there’s a little rain on your parade.

One aspect of that might be some temporary hearing issues.

How?

What happens in the spring is a whole host of things—pollen, mold, pet dander, dust—goes airborne. An allergic reaction is when your body decides any or all of those are hostile invaders that need to be fought. It does this by firing up your immune system and releasing antibodies.

But that process includes inflammation, as a host of chemicals are released into the bloodstream, like histamines and cytokines.

And given the narrow confines and delicate operations of the middle and inner ear, any swelling and fluid buildup can impact how well you hear during a bout of allergies.

A constricted ear canal can lead to the misalignment of other parts of the ear, causing hearing efficiency to decline.

The buildup of fluid likewise throws off the ears’ mechanisms, including the Eustachian tube (which connects the ears with the throat and is vital to keeping air pressure modulated) and vestibular system (crucial to maintaining balance).

Symptoms and Relief

Hence, spring allergies can come with dizziness and ear-popping as well as poor hearing. Spring weather (any weather) – and allergies – may also affect your tinnitus.

Generally speaking, any hearing or related issues will fade away as the allergic reactions do. Very rarely, allergies can lead to more serious outcomes. So, if symptoms seem to be protracted or severe, then go see your hearing health professional.

Seasonal Tinnitus Spikes

Is there such a thing as seasonal tinnitus? Can the cold weather make that ringing, buzzing, or humming in your ears worse? Are you struggling with tinnitus spikes right now?

It’s not unusual for existing tinnitus to worsen or escalate in cold weather, even if the weather itself isn’t to blame. Cold and flu infections, added pressure on the ear, and increased rates of depression are all common occurrences during the winter months, and all can contribute to tinnitus symptoms.

Tinnitus Spikes

Any increase in the level of noise you’re familiar with can be a tinnitus spike, whether that’s in volume, intensity, “tone, pitch, or sound.” It may come and go, last for a short time, or increase (steadily or off and on) permanently.

What causes spikes? Just about anything that causes tinnitus: lack of sleep, additional or unexpected stress, certain foods and medications, maybe even sudden weather or temperature changes (from warm to cold, or from cold to warm).

Tinnitus and Cold Weather

Why does cold weather affect tinnitus so much? There’s no definitive answer. But lifestyle changes have a lot to do with it. In the winter, you may be more sedentary than usual. Maybe you drink more caffeine or alcohol (both common tinnitus triggers). Shorter days may mean heightened anxiety or depression.

A more direct consequence could be weather-caused congestion. Just as many physicians believe spring and summer allergies are a big influence on tinnitus, head and sinus congestion due to viral infections can also change the equilibrium in or pressure on your ears.

Tinnitus Management Techniques

Tinnitus spikes or not, there’s a lot you can do to help the ringing in your ears. At home, treatment can include:

1. Limiting known causes (caffeine, alcohol, aspirin, salt)
2. Managing stress and sleep. Sometimes a good night’s sleep is the best thing you can do.
3. Exercising, meditating, or yoga

For severe cases, hearing aids, sound and behavioral therapies, or medication all offer paths to relief. According to the American Tinnitus Association: “Tinnitus is overwhelmingly connected to some level of hearing loss. Augmenting the reception and perception of external noise can often provide relief from the internal sound of tinnitus.”

CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, in particular, has been known to be an effective treatment. CBT is a popular behavioral therapy that, in essence, encourages you to disassociate any tinnitus occurrences with negative thoughts or emotions. It’s a “gradual exposure to an uncomfortable situation,” allowing the sufferer to face, understand, and work with their affliction without letting it control their life.

There’s a lot of information out there about tinnitus. Trying to figure out the best treatment options — or even what kind of tinnitus you have — may at first seem overwhelming. But don’t worry! If you notice a buzzing, humming, or ringing in your ear, if your existing tinnitus spikes, or if your self-care techniques at home aren’t working, be sure to contact your audiologist as soon as you can. There’s a lot you — and others — can do to help.

Subjective and Objective Tinnitus

What is tinnitus? Tinnitus is noise (non-external) that you can hear in one or both of your ears. It often presents as a ringing or buzzing and may be constant or intermittent — coming and going — sometimes without cause. Professionals break down the affliction into 2 categories: subjective and objective tinnitus. An easy way to distinguish between the two is by determining who can hear the described noise. If it’s only the patient, then it’s subjective. If others can hear or measure the sound (often through hearing instruments), then it’s objective.

Effective management often depends on the type of tinnitus you have.

Subjective Tinnitus

The vast majority of tinnitus sufferers have subjective tinnitus, ringing in ears that can often be managed, but not fixed.

There are many treatment options for subjective tinnitus. Many doctors recommend limiting the intake of caffeine or alcohol and reducing stress. Auditory habituation or tinnitus retraining therapy is another method and involves a device or hearing aid that produces a low-level sound alongside the ringing in order to desensitize your own, possibly ingrained reactions to sound. This is similar to acoustic therapy, which – through the use of hearing aids or sound generators – masks any annoying tinnitus sounds.

Objective Tinnitus

Objective tinnitus is “usually produced by internal functions in the body’s circulatory (blood flow) and somatic (musculoskeletal movement) systems.” This type can both be heard by your hearing care specialist and can often be cured in its entirety. For those whose “buzzing, ringing, whistling” is caused by a buildup of earwax or a punctured eardrum, the path to clear sound is often as simple as fixing the underlying problem.

Objective tinnitus is rare, seen in less than a single percent of all recorded cases.

What To Do About Tinnitus

1. Don’t panic. Try not to get frustrated. Your reaction — and approach — to tinnitus can greatly affect how much it bothers you down the road. Mindset is important.

2. Talk to your audiologist. Especially if you notice a new or worsening ringing or buzzing. If it’s a symptom of another problem or not, whether it’s subjective or objective tinnitus, it’s best to get any symptoms checked by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Blog update: This was one of REM’s first blogs, published a few years ago, on the effective management of tinnitus. We have updated this article with the most up-to-date information.

 

COVID and Hearing

As has become clear, nothing is easy with COVID-19. Even with vaccines widely available, the current wave of infections will inevitably result in more cases of what is known as long-haul COVID. So, what’s the relationship between COVID and hearing?

Long COVID

What has become clear over the last year and a half is that a small minority of people who get infected do not simply “get over it” — no matter the treatment they receive. Instead of their symptoms wrapping up after the acute phase of the disease has run its course—usually, about two weeks—these unlucky folks, about 10 percent of those infected, have symptoms that linger.

For those who required hospitalization, a recent study published in The Lancet found that about half were still feeling the effects a year later. Fatigue, muscle weakness, and shortness of breath are the most common signs of long-haul COVID.

COVID and Hearing

For those affected, are further hearing issues a problem? Can those who contracted COVID and then recovered be plagued with issues that may include bouts of tinnitus and vertigo, and (for some) sudden onset hearing loss? According to Healthy Hearing, the jury’s still out. Maybe, but much more research is needed.

But some say it’s possible. One theory is that such ear-related problems are rooted in the havoc that COVID can wreak on the body’s circulatory system. There is now a syndrome identified as coronavirus blood clots, which can be especially problematic in the kind of tiny blood vessels that are crucial to ear function.

This may be the root cause of why tinnitus—a persistent ringing in the ears that is not associated with actual sounds—has (anecdotally) been reported to have gotten worse for many after getting COVID.

At this point COVID long haulers are the focus of a tremendous amount of medical research and, hopefully, treatments will eventually be developed. If you think your hearing loss has gotten worse – due to COVID or not – it’s best to speak with an audiologist or hearing specialist immediately.

Tinnitus Education

Tinnitus education starts early at REM! For children especially, early management of tinnitus can help prevent future issues, such as hearing loss due to noise exposure.

And while it’s very important to not draw undue attention to tinnitus in a child lest they over-focus on or invent its presence, it is likewise important for parents and physicians to pay attention to any unsolicited complaints of ringing, buzzing, or “foreign” sounds in their ears.

What Do We Propose?

The presence of tinnitus symptoms can be due to noise (maybe they’re listening to loud music through earbuds), certain medications, or even a past head injury. It can be harmless or require immediate attention. There are a lot of variables, and it’s important to figure out what’s what.

REM recommends that all school-aged children receive at least 1 hearing test in their elementary years. That might be the perfect time to not only talk about hearing loss — its risks, what it feels (and sounds) like — but also what to do if they experience any “hissing, buzzing, whistling, roaring or ringing” in their ears.

Again, you don’t want to overemphasize tinnitus, as a small amount of ringing in the ears can be both normal and — to the detriment of the child — hyper-focused on. But you may want to ask them to describe — in their own words — what sounds they normally hear. If they detail anything out of the ordinary, it may provide cause to investigate possible signs of tinnitus further and maybe even come up with a treatment or management plan for the future.

How Does Tinnitus Manifest in Children?

As in adults, every case is different. The most common symptoms, according to CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) are:

  • “Reports of ringing, buzzing, clicking, whistling, humming, hissing, or roaring sound
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Poor attention and restlessness in a very young child
  • Tantrums, irritability, and your child holding his head or ears
  • Severe fatigue
  • Anxiety or depression”

CHOP also breaks down why tinnitus in children is something that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. It may be temporary (a side effect of exposure to a loud noise), but tinnitus could also signal “damage to the inner ear,” which can cause hearing impairment and affect concentration, learning, and development in the classroom.

It’s Up To Us

“About one-third of children suffer from tinnitus at some point, but the condition often goes unnoticed. In many cases, the child is too young to describe what they’re hearing, has come to think of it as normal, or is not troubled by the experience enough to mention it,” CHOP also writes.

It’s a tricky situation, trying to diagnose something you don’t necessarily want to draw attention to. But since a lot of children don’t notice tinnitus, or can’t articulate its symptoms if they do, it’s up to us to find a way to help.