Tinnitus: what causes it and what you can do

Coping with 'ringing in the ears'

The Causes of Tinnitus

Tinnitus refers to hearing sounds where there is no external sound source. Sufferers typically describe the noise as ringing, hissing, buzzing, roaring or humming. It can be heard in one or both ears or in the head. There may be a single sound or two or more, and the noise may be constant or come and go.

See also: Do you need to wear a hearing aid?

A small number of people hear sounds similar to music or singing, known as 'musical hallucination.' In other cases, people hear noises that beat in time with their pulse – known as pulsatile tinnitus.

Is it serious?
Although tinnitus is rarely a symptom of a serious underlying condition, it can be hard to live with. A source of minor irritation for some, those who hear the noises constantly may find it affects concentration, makes it hard to sleep, and leaves them feeling depressed.

Who is affected?
It's estimated that 10% of the British population suffers with persistent tinnitus to some degree. It can affect people of all ages, including children, but is more common in people aged over 65. Around 25% of those aged over 70 will experience tinnitus.

Two-thirds of people with tinnitus have hearing loss, but many people with hearing loss don't have tinnitus. Similarly, you can have tinnitus without having a hearing problem.

What causes it?
Most cases of tinnitus are caused by age-related hearing loss or hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noise. For example, you might hear ringing for a brief time after attending a loud music concert. Repeated exposure to loud noises can result in inner ear damage and persistent tinnitus.

It can also be caused by some ear conditions and diseases; ear, head or neck injuries and certain medications used to treat serious diseases. The problem is linked to ear problems such as Meniere's disease, and can occur with middle ear infections and jaw problems. In some cases, it may be the result of earwax build-up. However, there may not be a clear cause. A third of people with tinnitus don't have an obvious problem with their ears or hearing.

Is there a cure?
Currently, there is no cure for tinnitus. In many cases, tinnitus will get better gradually over time.

If you continually or regularly hear sounds such as buzzing, ringing or humming in your ears, see your GP. They can examine your ears to check for signs of an ear infection and earwax build-up and test your hearing. Your GP may refer you to an audiologist or Ear Nose and Throat doctor for a hearing assessment.

Management options can include: sound therapy (listening to neutral sounds to distract you from the sound of tinnitus), hearing aids, hearing aids with a noise generator. Some people find that tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) helps them to habituate their tinnitus, so that they're able to 'filter out' the noises to some extent. Counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation therapy and mindfulness may also help.

Action on Hearing Loss has information, support and advice on the subject.

Three products you might be interested in:

Living with Tinnitus and Hyperacusis, £8.99

Invisible hearing aids from Boots the chemist

Auritech Complete Cleaning Kit for Hearing Devices, £12.95

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