Explore the connection between illness and tinnitus. Learn how colds and infections can affect tinnitus symptoms and discover effective strategies for managing this condition during sickness.
Dr Edmund Farrar

Dr Edmund Farrar

Medically Reviewed by
Co-Founder & CEO of Oto

Does Having a Cold Make Tinnitus Worse?

Tinnitus, commonly described as a persistent ringing, buzzing, or whistling in the ears, is a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It is a symptom rather than a disease itself, often indicative of various underlying health issues ranging from minor ear infections to more serious auditory system disorders. A question frequently posed by those who experience tinnitus is whether their symptoms can be exacerbated by common illnesses, such as a cold or flu. This article delves into the complex relationship between illnesses and the intensification of tinnitus symptoms, exploring the physiological and psychological factors at play. As we delve deep into the truths of this condition, we will shed light on why tinnitus may indeed seem worse when you are sick and what measures can be taken to alleviate the discomfort during such times. Let’s find out together. 

Understanding Tinnitus and Its Triggers

Tinnitus is an auditory phenomenon where an individual hears noises that are not caused by an external sound source. These noises can manifest as ringing, buzzing, hissing, or even clicking sounds that can vary in pitch and intensity. It's a symptom that can be temporary or chronic, and it's often more noticeable in quiet environments, potentially causing distress and affecting the quality of life. For most with the condition, only they can hear the noise. However, there is also a rarer form, where the sound can also be heard by a doctor during an examination, often caused by vascular or muscular issues.

Common Triggers of Tinnitus

  • Hearing Loss: Tinnitus can be associated with damage to the auditory system, particularly in the inner ear.
  • Loud Noise Exposure: Exposure to loud sounds can lead to temporary or permanent tinnitus.
  • Medications: Certain medications are known to cause ear-related side effects, such as Tinnitus. These drugs are called ototoxic medications.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Psychological stress has the potential to worsen tinnitus symptoms, creating a vicious cycle of distress.
  • Earwax Buildup: Excessive earwax can block the ear canal and cause hearing loss or irritation, this can sometimes cause tinnitus.

Understanding the triggers and nature of tinnitus is crucial for those seeking to manage this condition effectively. In the following sections, we will explore how common illnesses, such as colds and respiratory infections, can interact with these triggers and potentially worsen the symptoms of tinnitus.

The Impact of Illness on Tinnitus

When the body succumbs to an illness, particularly those affecting the respiratory system like the common cold, a cascade of effects can potentially aggravate tinnitus. These effects range from the physical changes within the ear to the overall stress the body endures while fighting off the infection.

Ear Congestion and Infections

  • Eustachian Tube Dysfunction: Colds can lead to dysfunction of the Eustachian tube, the canal that connects the middle ear to the upper throat and back of the nasal cavity, causing a feeling of fullness or pressure that can amplify tinnitus.
  • Middle Ear Effusion: Fluid build-up in the middle ear as a result of infection or congestion can alter the acoustic properties of the ear, making tinnitus more noticeable.

Inflammation and Its Effects

  • Sinus Pressure: Sinus congestion and inflammation can lead to increased pressure in the ear, impacting tinnitus.
  • Inflammatory Response: The body's immune response to illness can lead to inflammation that affects the inner ear and auditory pathways.

The Role of Sinuses and Eustachian Tubes

The sinuses and Eustachian tubes play a significant role in the auditory system, and their function can be compromised during illness. 


  • Sinuses: Air-filled spaces in the skull that can become congested during a cold, leading to pressure changes. If congested, these can indirectly affect the ears by altering the pressure dynamics in the nasal and ear passages.
  • Eustachian Tubes: Tubes that help equalize pressure in the middle ear. When blocked, they can contribute to a sensation of ear fullness and worsen tinnitus. Common colds can cause these tubes to swell, trapping fluid and causing pressure changes that may intensify the condition.

In the next section, we will delve deeper into how specific types of ear infections can directly impact tinnitus and what happens when medications used to treat illness have side effects that may exacerbate the condition’s symptoms.

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Ear Infections and Tinnitus

The onset of an ear infection during a bout of illness can directly influence the severity of tinnitus. These infections can affect various parts of the ear, leading to temporary or sometimes even permanent changes in hearing and tinnitus perception.

Types of Ear Infections

  • Otitis Media: An infection of the middle ear, often occurring after a cold, can increase pressure behind the eardrum and worsen tinnitus.
  • Otitis Externa: Also known as swimmer's ear, this infection of the ear canal can cause swelling and a buildup of debris, which may heighten tinnitus symptoms.

Consequences of Ear Infections

  • Temporary Hearing Loss: Infections can lead to fluid accumulation and inflammation, causing a temporary threshold shift in hearing, which can make tinnitus more noticeable.
  • Persistent Tinnitus: In some cases, if the infection leads to permanent damage to the inner ear structures, that could result in more persistent tinnitus.

Medications and Tinnitus

While medications are often necessary to treat illnesses, some can have side effects that affect hearing and can even increase the symptoms of tinnitus.


What does ototoxicity mean? It refers to drug-induced damage to the inner ear, resulting in symptoms such as hearing loss, vertigo, and tinnitus. Some medications that cause this are specific antibiotics, NSAIDs, and certain diuretics can have ototoxic effects. Usually a high-dose is required for this to happen, but not always. 

Managing Medication-Induced Tinnitus

It is crucial to always have consultation with healthcare providers. It is important that individuals with tinnitus discuss potential ototoxic effects with their doctors before starting new medications. In addition, if you are using new medication then try to monitor your symptoms. Any new or worsening tinnitus after starting medication should be reported to a healthcare professional.

The physical and mental stress of being ill can also exacerbate tinnitus. In the following section, we will explore how the body's response to illness and the psychological impact of being sick can contribute to the severity of tinnitus symptoms.

Well-being and Physical Stress of Illness

Being ill not only leads to physical symptoms, but it can also affect your well-being. These types of stresses can have a pronounced effect on the experience of tinnitus. Understanding the interplay between stress and tinnitus is crucial for managing the condition, especially during times of illness.

Physical Stress and Tinnitus

When the body is fighting an illness, the body's immune response to this can lead to fatigue and stress, which may exacerbate tinnitus. In addition, Illness often disrupts sleep patterns, and lack of restorative sleep can increase the perception of tinnitus. 

Psychological Stress and Tinnitus

Anxiety and Illness have an interwoven connection. Being sick can increase anxiety levels, which in turn can make tinnitus symptoms feel more intense. In general, being ill can cause individuals to focus more on their health, potentially leading to increased awareness and perception of tinnitus.

Preventative Measures and Treatments

While it may not be possible to prevent all instances of illness, there are steps that can be taken to minimise the risk of becoming ill. Or, alternatively, there are methods of managing tinnitus symptoms effectively during sickness.

Preventing Colds and Infections

It isn’t always possible to avoid sickness, especially during particular seasons. However, hygiene plays a crucial part. Regular handwashing and avoiding close contact with those who are sick can reduce the risk of catching a cold. In addition, staying up to date with vaccinations can help prevent certain illnesses that might lead to ear infections or tinnitus flare-ups.

Treatment Options for Tinnitus During Illness

There are also some over-the-counter remedies. Decongestants and nasal sprays may help alleviate ear pressure and congestion when ill, potentially reducing tinnitus symptoms. If the condition becomes significantly worse, seeking treatment from a healthcare provider or an audiologist is recommended.

Managing Stress

Knowing a few relaxation techniques can be crucial if you’re ill and experiencing worsened tinnitus. Practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness can help manage the stress of being sick and may reduce the impact of tinnitus. In addition, making healthy lifestyle choices are also key. Adequate rest, a balanced diet, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine can support overall health and potentially lessen tinnitus symptoms.


The intricate relationship between illness and tinnitus is one that can affect the severity and perception of this already challenging condition. It is clear from the physiological and psychological perspectives that being sick can indeed make tinnitus worse in certain cases. The congestion and pressure changes in the ear, the potential for ear infections, and the side effects of certain medications all contribute to the complexity of managing tinnitus during times of illness.

In addition, the stress associated with being unwell, both physical from the body's immune response and psychological from the anxiety and focus on symptoms, can intensify the experience of tinnitus. 

However, understanding these connections allows for better management strategies, from preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of getting sick to treatment options that can alleviate tinnitus symptoms when one is ill.

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