Tinnitus (Ringing in the Ears)

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Tinnitus is the perception of ringing in one or both ears without any external sound. Noises may be high-pitched, ringing, clicking, pulsing or buzzing. You could also experience:

  • Ringing, roaring, buzzing, whistling or hissing sounds
  • Intermittent, continuous or pulsing quality
  • Same or varying loudness
  • Single or multiple tones
  • More annoying symptoms in quiet places or when there are fewer distractions

What Causes Tinnitus?

Common causes include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Inner ear damage from noise exposure
  • Medication side effects

Occasional episodes of tinnitus lasting a few minutes are common in most people, especially after exposure to loud sounds.

You could also have tinnitus due to:

  • Occupations or activities that expose you to loud sounds
  • Ear wax or something in the ear canal
  • Fluid or infection in the ear
  • Ruptured eardrum
  • Toxins, such as heavy metals, carbon monoxide or alcohol
  • Certain health conditions:
    • Meniere's disease
    • High or low blood pressure
    • Diabetes
    • Depression or anxiety
    • Tumors of the head or neck
    • Thyroid problems
    • Temporomandibular (jaw) joint disorder (TMJ)
  • Blood vessel disorders, such as hardening of the arteries may be associated with tinnitus that may sound like your heart beating
  • Concussion or head injury

Should I Call My Doctor About Ear Noise?

Call your doctor if you have tinnitus, especially if it:

  • Is associated with hearing loss, vertigo, weakness in any part of the body, or change in personality or speech
  • Is only in one ear
  • Starts after head or neck injury
  • Happens with new medication
  • Pulses (like your heartbeat)
  • Occurs with pain in the ear, fever, nausea or vomiting

Getting a Tinnitus Diagnosis

A doctor will examine your ears, head and neck, and ask questions about:

  • What your tinnitus sounds like
  • Factors that make your tinnitus change loudness or pitch
  • Medications that you take
  • History of trauma
  • History of noise exposure
  • Hearing loss

The doctor may recommend that you have a hearing test, and may also refer you for imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI.

A hearing test includes:

  • Looking in your ears with a special scope
  • Wearing earphones and listening for words and tones
  • Testing how your eardrums work

Tinnitus Treatment

Treatment depends on causes. This may mean:

  • Having the wax removed from your ear canal
  • Stopping or changing medications to see if tinnitus goes away
  • Taking antibiotics for an ear infection

Management aims to reduce the annoyance associated with tinnitus, which may include:

Mechanical Devices That Reduce Your Perception of Tinnitus

Devices include:

  • Hearing aids — improve hearing in people with hearing loss and may relieve tinnitus in some people
  • Tinnitus suppression — a device that emits a low level of noise or music to help cover up internal noises and reduce focus on the tinnitus
  • Anything that provides low-level background noise such as a fan, sound machine, CD, DVD or smartphone application that uses static, or “white noise,” sounds of nature like the ocean or rain, even the TV or radio to cover the tinnitus

Lifestyle & Self-care Measures

Measures to discuss with your doctor if no cure or specific treatment is available include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy from a trained specialist
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Biofeedback
  • Joining a support group
  • Avoiding things that makes tinnitus sensations worse, such as:
    • Loud noises
    • Alcohol
    • Smoking
    • Salt
    • Caffeine
  • Exercising regularly to improve circulation
  • Playing a radio or a white-noise machine for about 30 minutes at bedtime to help cover up tinnitus

Medication for Tinnitus Relief

No medication has been shown to be effective in treating tinnitus. Your doctor may still try to use some medications to ease your symptoms. These may include antidepressants and sedatives.

    Preventing Tinnitus

    To help reduce your chance of developing tinnitus, take these steps:

    • Avoid exposure to loud sounds
    • Wear hearing protection in noisy situations
    • Wear hearing protection when using lawnmowers and power tools
    • Learn and practice stress management and relaxation techniques
    • Limit use of medications that damage hearing 

     

    Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.