Many people have experienced the temporary buzzing or ringing in their ears at the conclusion of a loud concert, or after a thunderous fireworks explosion. But if you’re experiencing these sounds in your ears all the time when there was – or is – no noise at all, it could be tinnitus.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a phantom noise; the perception of sound when there is no external sound present. It is usually described as a ringing noise, but some people say it sounds like a hissing, humming, whistling, an empty seashell sound or even the patterned sound of crickets or locust chirping.
It is thought to result from damage to the microscopic endings of the hearing nerve in the inner ear.
Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant. It is seldom serious; however, it can be so severe that it interferes with the ability to hear actual noise.
The constant presence of tinnitus can significantly affect quality of life. Some people may also experience other symptoms such as fatigue, stress, trouble sleeping, problems concentrating, depression and anxiety.
Tinnitus affects about one in five people.
What causes tinnitus?
- Exposure to loud noises from lawn mowers, heavy equipment and firearms. During the summer months, people are even more prone to exposure by using noisy lawn and home improvement tools and fireworks.
- Continued exposure to loud music from concerts or music pumped through ear buds for long periods of time.
- Physical ear injury caused by a blow to the ear or an ear infection
- Neurological damage
- Medications. Some prescribed medications can contribute to tinnitus. Aspirin, taken in uncommonly high does, can cause tinnitus. Symptoms can usually be resolved once medications are adjusted.
- Age-related hearing loss, usually starting around the age of 60
- Earwax blockage can cause hearing loss or irritation of the eardrum, which can lead to tinnitus.
- Ear bone changes. Abnormal bone growth may cause stiffening of the bones in your middle ear, which can cause tinnitus. This condition tends to run in families.
Who’s at risk?
Anyone can experience tinnitus, but these factors may increase your risk:
- Gender. Men are more likely to experience tinnitus
- Cardiovascular problems. Conditions that affect your blood flow, such as high blood pressure or narrowed arteries.
Your doctor will examine your ears, head and neck to look for possible causes of tinnitus. Other tests may include hearing exams, a movement and facial muscle clenching evaluation, imaging tests and evaluation to make sure you don’t have blood vessel problems.
When to see a doctor:
- You develop tinnitus after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold, and your tinnitus doesn't improve within a week.
- You have tinnitus that occurs suddenly or without an apparent cause.
- You have hearing loss or dizziness with the tinnitus.
If tinnitus is due to an underlying condition, your doctor may be able to reduce the noise. Removing excess ear wax, changing medications or treating blood vessel conditions may help alleviate or reduce the condition.
If it is not due to a treatable condition, remedies my help manage the symptoms. They will not cure the condition:
- White noise machines — devices that produce simulated environmental sounds such as falling rain or ocean waves. You can purchase a special device or try a fan, humidifier or air conditioner to help cover the internal noise for better sleeping.
- Masking devices. Worn in the ear and similar to hearing aids, these devices produce a continuous, low-level white noise that suppresses tinnitus symptoms.
- Tinnitus retraining. A wearable device delivers individually programmed music to mask the specific frequencies of the tinnitus you experience. This technique may accustom you to the tinnitus, helping you not to focus on it.
- Hearing aids. These can be especially helpful to amplify the noise you want to hear above noise from tinnitus.
- Medications. Drugs can't cure tinnitus, but they may help reduce the severity of symptoms and irritation you may experience. Talk to your doctor about medications that may help you.
Tinnitus is frequently the result of something that can't be prevented. However, some precautions can help prevent certain kinds of tinnitus.
- Use hearing protection. Exposure to loud noises — which are even more prevalent during the summer months — can damage the nerves in the ears, causing hearing loss and tinnitus. Musicians and machinists should always wear hearing protection.
- Turn down the volume. Long-term exposure to amplified music, including through headphones can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
- Take care of your cardiovascular health. Regular exercise, eating right and other steps to keep your blood vessels healthy can help prevent tinnitus linked to blood vessel disorders.
Living with tinnitus
Often, tinnitus can't be treated. For many people, certain adjustments make the symptoms less bothersome.
- Avoid loud noise exposure.
- Manage stress. Stress can make tinnitus worse. Stress management through therapy, exercise or other means may provide some relief.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption. They increase the force of your blood by dilating your blood vessels, causing greater blood flow, especially in the inner ear area.
If you have signs of tinnitus, see your doctor.