Ringing in the ears and hearing loss affect one out of every five Americans including teenagers. Wearing earplugs at concerts and turning down earbud volumes can help reduce your risk.

Tinnitus Overview

Reviewed: May 7, 2014

Tinnitus is a medical term for the illusion of sound, often described as ringing in the ears, where there is none. For some it sounds like whooshing, roaring, hissing, clicking or buzzing. Tinnitus is not a disease. It is usually a symptom of any number of broader hearing problems.

The two types of tinnitus are:

  • subjective (only you can hear the sounds)
  • objective (noises others can hear, less common type)

Severe tinnitus can make hearing, working and sleeping difficult. 

Scientists have yet to agree upon the exact way the brain's neural circuits (networks of brain cells) create the perception of sound where it doesn't exist.

Tinnitus Symptoms

The noises may sound like ringing, roaring, buzzing, whistling, clicking, whooshing, or humming. It may be soft or loud and in one or both ears.

Tinnitus Causes

It is not known exactly what causes tinnitus. Health conditions that might be the cause of tinnitus include:

  • Hearing loss in older people
  • Exposure to loud noises
  • Ear and sinus infections
  • Heart or blood vessel problems
  • Meniere's disease
  • Brain tumors
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Thyroid problems
  • Certain medicines

Tinnitus Diagnosis

See your healthcare provider if you think you have tinnitus. Your health care provider will need to know all of your medical conditions and the medications you are taking. He or she will check to see if anything is blocking ear canal.

Your health care provider might perform the following tests to understand and diagnose the cause of your symptoms:

  • audiology/audiometry tests for hearing loss
  • CT scan 
  • MRI 
  • angiography

Living With Tinnitus

It can be difficult and stressful coping with tinnitus. People with tinnitus often find it hard to focus on tasks and sleeping is often disrupted. You might find some strategies to make the noise less noticeable, to help you relax, or to fall asleep at night, which can lessen the impact of tinnitus on your life.

While stress is not considered a cause of tinnitus, it may worsen it. Finding ways to relax is an important part of learning to live with tinnitus. 

Besides stress, caffeinated and alcoholic beverages and cigarette smoking may trigger or worsen symptoms.

To mask tinnitus noises, particularly at night, you might play other noises such as low-level music, fans, humidifiers, white noise machines, or other machines that make noise.

Keep earplugs with you to mask loud sounds and to protect your hearing from further damage. If possible, avoid loud places and sounds.


Tinnitus Treatments

Sometimes a simple fix like the removal of earwax can make the symptoms go away.

Medications including antidepressants and antianxiety drugs have been used to relieve anxiety and disruption of mood, and to help patients sleep. These medications require a prescription from your health care provider and are not always effective.

Hearing aids help to control outside noises and to make tinnitus less noticeable.

Sound generators, both wearable and tabletop, mask tinnitus by playing soft, pleasant sounds.

A tinnitus masker worn like a hearing aid helps some people. It delivers low-level sound directly into the ear to cover or disguise the ear noise that is bothering you.


Tinnitus Other Treatments

Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and send electrical signals to the auditory nerve. This treatment is sometimes used in people with severe hearing loss. It brings in outside sounds, masking tinnitus and stimulating change in neural circuits.

While there are many medications marketed to be helpful in relieving symptoms of tinnitus, none has been proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials.


Tinnitus Prognosis

Unfortunately, for some people there is no easily treated underlying condition that can make the tinnitus go away. For these people, learning to cope and ignore the sounds are the only answer.