Tinnitus is the medical term for "hearing" noises in your ears. It occurs when there is no outside source of the sounds.
Tinnitus is often called "ringing in the ears." It may also sound like blowing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, humming, whistling, or sizzling. The noises heard can be soft or loud. The person may even think they're hearing air escaping, water running, the inside of a seashell, or musical notes.
Ringing in the ears; Noises or buzzing in the ears; Ear buzzing; Otitis media - tinnitus; Aneurysm - tinnitus; Ear infection - tinnitus; Meniere disease - tinnitus
Tinnitus is common. Almost everyone notices a mild form of tinnitus once in a while. It only lasts a few minutes. However, constant or recurring tinnitus is stressful and makes it harder to focus or sleep.
Tinnitus can be:
- Subjective, which means that the sound is only heard by the person
- Objective, which means that the sound is heard by both the affected person and the examiner (using a stethoscope near the person's ear, head, or neck)
It is not known exactly what causes a person to "hear" sounds with no outside source of the noise. However, tinnitus can be a symptom of almost any ear problem, including:
- Ear infections
- Foreign objects or wax in the ear
- Hearing loss
- Meniere disease -- an inner ear disorder that involves hearing loss and dizziness
- Problem with the eustachian tube (tube that runs between the middle ear and the throat)
Antibiotics, aspirin, or other drugs may also cause ear noises. Alcohol, caffeine, or smoking may worsen tinnitus if the person already has it.
Sometimes, tinnitus is a sign of high blood pressure, an allergy, or anemia. In rare cases, tinnitus is a sign of a serious problem such as a tumor or aneurysm. Other risk factors for tinnitus include temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), diabetes, thyroid problems, obesity, and head injury.
Tinnitus is common in war veterans and in older adults age 65 years or older. Children can also be affected, especially those with severe hearing loss.
Tinnitus is often more noticeable when you go to bed at night because your surroundings are quieter. To mask tinnitus and make it less irritating, background noise using the following may help:
- White noise machine
- Running a humidifier or dishwasher
Home care of tinnitus mainly includes:
- Learning ways to relax. It is not known if stress causes tinnitus, but feeling stressed or anxious can worsen it.
- Avoiding things that may make tinnitus worse, such as caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.
- Getting enough rest. Try sleeping with your head propped up in an elevated position. This lessens head congestion and may make noises less noticeable.
- Protecting your ears and hearing from further damage. Avoid loud places and sounds. Wear ear protection, such as earplugs, if you need them.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- Ear noises start after a head injury.
- The noises occur with other unexplained symptoms, like dizziness, feeling off balance, nausea, or vomiting.
- You have unexplained ear noises that bother you even after you try self-help measures.
- The noise is only in one ear and it continues for several weeks or longer.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The following tests may be done:
Fixing the problem, if it can be found, may make your symptoms go away. (For example, your provider may remove ear wax.) If TMJ is the cause, your dentist may suggest dental appliances or home exercises to treat teeth clenching and grinding.
Talk to your provider about all your current medicines to see if a drug may be causing the problem. This may include over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements. Do not stop taking any medicine without talking to your provider.
Many medicines are used to relieve symptoms of tinnitus, but no drug works for everyone. Your provider may have you try different medicines or combinations of medicines to see what works for you.
A tinnitus masker worn like a hearing aid helps some people. It delivers low-level sound directly into the ear to cover the ear noise.
A hearing aid may help reduce ear noise and make outside sounds louder.
Counseling may help you learn to live with tinnitus. Your provider may suggest biofeedback training to help with stress.
Some people have tried alternative therapies to treat tinnitus. These methods have not been proven, so talk to your provider before trying them.
Tinnitus can be managed. Talk with your provider about a management plan that works for you.
The American Tinnitus Association offers a good resource center and support group.
Bauer CA. Tinnitus and hyperacusis. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 151.
Eggermont JJ. Epidemiology and genetics of hearing loss and tinnitus. In: Eggermont JJ, ed. Hearing Loss: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier Academic Press; 2017:chap 7.
Tunkel DE, Bauer CA, Sun GH, et al. Clinical practice guideline: tinnitus. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014;151(2 Suppl):S1-S40. PMID: 25273878. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25273878.