When a common cold means uncommon tinnitus

As some of my clients know, as I’ve tried to coach them and blow my nose discreetly, I have a heavy head cold.

My ears feel full, my balance is wonky, and the main sound I hear is my blinkin’ tinnitus! In fact, it sounds like I have an old-fashioned fire alarm ringing in my head 24/7.

Why does a cold make our tinnitus seem worse?
It’s simple mechanics really. When we have a cold or flu our middle ear becomes congested, which makes it hard for the sound waves to travel through the ear. Also, the eustachian tubes in the back of the throat can become blocked and unable to regulate air pressure in the middle ear.

If our hearing is muffled, that means everyday sounds which normally help mask our tinnitus will not be as loud as usual (whether we wear hearing aids or not). Our tinnitus seems louder, and therefore more intrusive. Plus, feeling unwell can make us miserable and stressed, which makes tinnitus seem worse as well.

What can we do to help ourselves?
We might feel frustrated, annoyed, or even worried by the tinnitus noises we’re experiencing. That’s ok, and perfectly normal. What will make the experience far worse is spending our days immersed in worrisome thoughts about how long our tinnitus will be elevated. We have zero control over that. What we can control is what we focus on – getting through each runny-nosed day the best we can. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Mindfully accepting that no matter how grim it is making me feel right now, my cold is temporary. The worst of the symptoms will be over in a few days, my hearing will start to return, and my tinnitus sound will revert to normal.
  • Reminding family members that I am struggling to hear even more than usual, so they need to face me and make sure I’ve heard, rather than chatting away with their back to me.
  • Using tinnitus masking sounds more than I usually do, whether that’s from an app, music or the TV. I must admit that my usual heavy metal is taking a back seat in favour of something a little more soothing!
  • Being kind to myself. I usually do some work over the weekend but instead I curled up with the next read for my book club (The Lost Ones, by Anita Frank in case you were wondering) and watched a lot of NCIS on Disney+. I’m lucky enough to work from home and today I am in cosy clothes and drinking plenty of coffee and water for my sore throat. And I’ve treated myself to the softest tissues I can find!
  • Whenever I get frustrated at how long it is taking me to write this, because of my cotton-wool head, or how I am struggling to hear speech at the moment, I don’t beat myself up. Instead I acknowledge how rough I am feeling, and that I’m doing the best I can.
  • Taking medicine that helps. Some people find basic pain relief and decongestants can help ease the stuffiness in their ears and eustachian tube, and any sore throat. I’m no doctor so ask your local pharmacist for help.

If you’ve fallen victim to one of the colds doing the rounds at the moment, be kind to yourself, rest up if you can, and keep reminding yourself that your tinnitus will return to normal once your head is clearer.