What is tinnitus?
“Tinnitus” is the medical term for hearing a noise or ringing in your ears when there is not any external sound present. Some people experience tinnitus as ringing, while others describe it as a buzzing, whistling, or clicking sound.
Tinnitus is very common, and affects 15-20% of people. For some people, it is a minor annoyance, while for others, it is severe and bothersome. It can be constant, or it can come and go.
The exact physical cause of tinnitus is unknown, but several sources can trigger it, or make it worse.
- Loud noises and hearing loss — The most common cause of tinnitus is exposure to loud noises. Loud noises are known to damage the tiny hairs inside the ears, called cilia. Short-term exposure to loud noises, such as a concert, typically causes reversible tinnitus. However, long-term exposure to loud noises can lead to the destruction of cilia. This can lead to permanent hearing loss and permanent ringing in the ears.
- Aging — As you age, it is common for cilia inside the ear to deteriorate, which can lead to tinnitus and hearing loss. Most commonly, this begins around age 60.
- Earwax — When too much earwax accumulates inside your ear canal, it can irritate the eardrum. This can lead to tinnitus and hearing loss.
- Medications — Certain medications are toxic to the inner ear and can lead to hearing loss and ringing in the ears.
- Hearing Conditions — Meniere’s Disease, TMJ disorders, and otosclerosis can also be causes.
Tinnitus can affect anyone, but certain populations seem to be at an increased risk of experiencing it.
- Gender — Men are more likely than women to experience it.
- Age — The older you get, the more likely you are to experience it.
- Smoking — People who smoke have a higher risk of developing it.
- Cardiovascular Disease — High blood pressure and atherosclerosis can increase your risk.
- Loud Noise Exposure — People who work in noisy environments, such as EMS, musicians, soldiers, and construction workers, are at a higher risk of developing tinnitus.
Prevention of tinnitus
Tinnitus cannot always be prevented. But by taking the following precautions, you will reduce your risk of developing it.
- Use hearing protection — If you work in an industry where you are commonly exposed to loud noise, always wear hearing protection. If you are going to a concert, or another noisy event, you should also wear hearing protection.
- Turn down the volume — When you are listening to music through headphones, listen to it at a reasonable volume. Long-term exposure to loud music can lead to both ringing in the ears and hearing loss.
- Treat chronic conditions and live a healthy lifestyle — Untreated cardiovascular disease can lead to tinnitus. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can contribute to heart health, and thereby reduce your risk of developing it.
Treatment of Tinnitus
In order to treat your tinnitus, the first step is to attempt to identify the cause. If yours is due to a health condition, the first step toward treating the ringing in your ears may be to treat the underlying health condition.
- Earwax removal — If you have impacted earwax, your doctor or audiologist will start by removing the earwax.
- Changing medications — If you take any medications that are known to be toxic to the ears, it may be possible for your doctor to change you to an alternative medication.
- Cardiovascular disease — If you have cardiovascular disease, your doctor may suggest treating it with medication, lifestyle changes, or another treatment. If cardiovascular disease is a cause of your tinnitus, treating it may reduce or stop the ringing in your ears.
Sometimes tinnitus is not caused by any other treatable health conditions. When it is caused by loud noise exposure, aging, or an unknown cause, noise suppression may be a good option. White noise can be used to try to suppress ringing in the ears so it is less bothersome. It is not a cure, but it can make living with it more tolerable.
- White noise machine — If tinnitus is preventing you from getting adequate sleep, you can try using a white noise machine in your bedroom. With a white noise machine, you can choose a soothing sound, such as ocean waves or raindrops, to mask the ringing sound. Even simpler options include running a fan, dehumidifier, or air conditioner to create white noise.
- Hearing aids — If tinnitus is interrupting your daily life, hearing aids can offer a solution for daytime ringing. Several brands of hearing aids contain technology targeted at treating tinnitus. Hearing aids are an especially great choice for patients who have both tinnitus and hearing loss. Your audiologist can help you determine which hearing aids would be the best option for you.
- Medications — There are no medications available that cure tinnitus, but several types of medications have been used with some success at reducing the severity. Consult with your doctor to find out if you would be a good candidate for any medication therapies.
If you are suffering from tinnitus, make a list of your signs and symptoms. Try to notate if there are certain environments or situations that make it worse. Make sure to document when you first started experiencing it.
Then, schedule an appointment with your hearing health provider so you can share this information with them. The more details you can provide, the better your provider can assist you in managing your tinnitus. An audiologist can manage many cases of tinnitus. They can provide hearing protection, earwax removal, management strategies, and hearing aids as prevention and treatment options. However, if your tinnitus is related to another condition, such as cardiovascular disease, your audiologist may refer you to an ENT or other specialist for more specialized care.