If you are experiencing ringing or other strange noises in your ears, you might have tinnitus. It’s a relatively common condition, and it’s often temporary. But sometimes it's a constant problem that can interfere with hearing and concentration.
What is tinnitus?
People with tinnitus experience sounds that aren’t actually being made around them.
Tinnitus is sometimes known as ‘ringing in the ears’, but if you have the condition you might hear humming sounds, or hissing, whistling, clicking, roaring, whooshing or buzzing.
The noise can be faint or loud, and it can occur in one or both ears. Sometimes the noise may feel like a sensation inside the head.
Tinnitus can come and go, or you might experience it all the time. Some people find their tinnitus is an irritation they can learn to live with. For others, it can be very distressing.
There are 2 main types of tinnitus:
- subjective tinnitus, which only you can hear – this is the most common type
- objective tinnitus, which a doctor can hear when they examine the ears – this can be caused by a problem with the blood vessels, or with the bones or muscles in the ear
In rare cases, people hear noises that seem to come and go at the same time as their heartbeat. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.
About 2 in 3 people in Australia suffer from tinnitus at some point in their life. About 1 in 10 to 1 in 5 have tinnitus that severely affects their quality of life.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus may occur when there is a problem with the auditory (or hearing) system, which is made up of the ears and parts of the brain.
It is more common in people who have some hearing loss or other ear problem, but it can also occur in people who have normal hearing.
Both adults and children can experience tinnitus. Older adults are more likely to experience tinnitus because of age-related hearing loss.
Some of the more common causes of tinnitus include:
- hearing loss
- ear wax
- exposure to loud noises
- ear infections
- head injuries
- Ménière’s disease
- some medicines
Sometimes, however, it’s not clear why people develop tinnitus.
When should I see my doctor?
Talk to your doctor if you suspect you might have tinnitus, especially if the sound is getting worse, affecting your sleep or concentration, or you think it might be pulsatile tinnitus. Make sure you tell them about any medications you are taking.
The doctor may check your ears and look for an underlying, treatable cause of what you are hearing. They might also refer you to an audiologist or ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
How is tinnitus treated?
There is no cure for tinnitus, but the underlying cause may be treatable. There are some things you can do to manage tinnitus:
- Work out what makes the tinnitus worse and avoid any triggers.
- Avoid silence — create background noise with the TV or radio.
- Relax and avoid stress, as this will make tinnitus worse.
- Talk to your doctor about medications that may be making the tinnitus worse, such as antibiotics, arthritis medications or antidepressants.
- Limit caffeine in coffee, tea or cola.
To avoid the tinnitus getting worse, wear ear plugs or headphones if you are using noise-generating equipment (such as a lawn mower) or in a loud environment, such as a rock concert.
Good-quality, properly fitted hearing aids reduce and can even eliminate most tinnitus associated with hearing loss. Hearing aids reduce the strain of listening and distract you from the tinnitus by bringing you more sound from the environment around you.
Many people get used to the sounds — they are said to ‘habituate’ so their brain doesn’t notice the tinnitus any more.
Some audiologists run specialist tinnitus clinics to help patients manage their tinnitus and they fit hearing aids and/or therapeutic noise generators if needed.
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Last reviewed: December 2020