There’s nothing quite like the sounds of spring: birds chirping as they make their way back north. Bees buzzing as they inspect the new spring blooms. Kids laughing as they head outside after being cooped up for the cold winter months.
But for some people, spring can bring very different, and very unpleasant sounds.
Yes, while most people are enjoying spring, with all its sounds of rebirth and renewal, some allergy sufferers can only hear one sound on repeat: the sound of tinnitus.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is sound in your head that doesn’t have an external source. While many people describe it as a ringing sound, others experience it as whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming or roaring noise. Tinnitus can be brought on by any number of factors.
Commonly, damage to the middle and inner ear from repetitive exposure to loud noises is the root cause of hearing loss. Tinnitus can also often be caused by earwax build-up, head and neck injuries, stress or reactions to medications.
However, the conditions that lead to tinnitus are not always so obvious; it can sometimes be brought on by unique or unusual triggers. One of the triggers you and your doctor may not have considered is allergies.
To better understand the connection between tinnitus and allergies, let’s take a closer look at what allergies actually are.
What are Allergies?
Your immune system is designed to protect you — from bacteria, viruses and other foreign invaders. But sometimes, it gets a little over-zealous; it does its job too well. Allergies are your immune system’s response to substances that are actually harmless to it, like pollen, dust or pet dander.
When your immune system senses what it perceives to be a scary substance, it produces antibodies that release the compound histamine. Histamine triggers your body to push the allergens out, using your nose, eyes and mouth as exit routes. The resulting runny nose, watery eyes and sneezing attacks are the classic symptoms of hay fever.
How are Allergies and Tinnitus Connected?
Hay fever can be miserable enough without getting your ears involved. But sometimes, the excess mucus production brought on by an allergy attack can obstruct the Eustachian tube — the drainage passage for the middle ear. The middle ear amplifies and transfers sound from the outer ear to the inner ear, so any blockage can interfere with your sense of hearing and lead to hearing loss or bouts of tinnitus.
Another way that allergies can bring on tinnitus has to do with what are called “cilia.” Cilia are little, tiny hair cells deep inside your ear, no bigger than 10–50 micrometers in length. When sound waves enter your ear, those sensitive hair cells bend and move, sending the sensation of sound to your brain.
But that sensitivity is a double-edged sword; anything that disrupts the cilia’s environment can throw them out of whack. When your immune system reacts to allergens, the histamines trigger inflammation throughout your body, including in your ears.
That inflammation can cause the cilia to bend, warp and move in unusual ways, which can dampen your hearing or create the sensation of sound that’s just not there. In other words? Tinnitus.
Tackling Your Allergy-Related Tinnitus
Though doctors report that cases increase significantly during the spring, allergy-related tinnitus can be a year-round affliction—with severe allergy sufferers often experiencing the most uncomfortable tinnitus symptoms. So what can you do to prevent allergy-related tinnitus, lessen the symptoms or banish them all together?
- Work with your doctor. Tell your doctor or hearing specialist if this is your first time experiencing tinnitus or if you think your allergies are making your pre-existing tinnitus symptoms worse. Talk to your doctor about medications that may help to lessen your allergy symptoms—and that don’t have tinnitus as a possible side effect.
- Know your triggers. You may think that pollen is causing your suffering, but other substances may be involved as well. More than two-thirds of spring allergy sufferers actually have year-round symptoms. An allergist can help you find the source of your suffering.
- Take your allergy medicines early. If you have a history of seasonal problems, your doctor may recommend starting your allergy medication two weeks before allergy seasons are expected to hit.
- Monitor pollen and mold counts. Weather reports often include this information during allergy seasons. You can also search online for daily updates.
- Keep windows and doors shut at home and in your car during allergy seasons.
- Take a shower, wash your hair and change your clothes after you’ve been working or playing outdoors.
- Consider immunotherapy. One of the most effective ways to treat allergies is immunotherapy, or allergy shots. These injections expose you to your allergen over time, so you learn to tolerate it rather than reacting with sneezing, a stuffy nose, watery eyes and symptoms of tinnitus.