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Tinnitus

Definition

Tinnitus is the medical term for "hearing" noises in your ears when there is no outside source of the sounds.

The noises you hear can be soft or loud. They may sound like ringing, blowing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, humming, whistling, or sizzling. You may even think you are hearing air escaping, water running, the inside of a seashell, or musical notes.

Alternative Names

Ringing in the ears; Noises or buzzing in the ears; Ear buzzing

Considerations

Tinnitus is common. Almost everyone experiences a mild form of tinnitus once in awhile that only lasts a few minutes. However, constant or recurring tinnitus is stressful and can interfere with your ability to concentrate or sleep.

Common Causes

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:

Alcohol, caffeine, antibiotics, aspirin, or other drugs can also cause ear noises.

Tinnitus may occur with hearing loss. Occasionally, it is a sign of high blood pressure, an allergy, or anemia. Rarely, tinnitus is a sign of a serious problem like a tumor or aneurysm.

Home Care

Tinnitus can be masked by competing sounds:

  • Low-level music, ticking clocks, or other noises may help you not notice the tinnitus.
  • Tinnitus is often more noticeable when you go to bed at night because your surroundings are quieter. Any noise in the room, like a humidifier, white noise machine, or dishwasher, can help mask tinnitus and make it less irritating.

Learn ways to relax. Stress does not cause tinnitus, but feeling stressed or anxious can worsen it.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.

Get enough rest. Try sleeping with your head propped up in an elevated position. This lessens head congestion and noises may become less noticeable.

Protect your ears and hearing from further damage. Avoid loud places and sounds. Use earplugs if you need them.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor if:

  • Ear noises start after a head injury.
  • The noises are associated with other unexplained symptoms like dizziness, feeling off balance, nausea, or vomiting.
  • You have unexplained ear noises that bother you even after self-help measures.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

The health care provider will perform a physical examination, which will include looking in your ears. You may be asked questions, such as:

  • What does the noise sound like?
  • Is the sound throbbing or rhythmic?
  • Is it in one or both ears?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

The following tests may be done:

TREATMENTS

If your doctor can determine the cause, fixing the problem (for example, removing ear wax) may make your symptoms go away.

Review all of your currrent medicines, including over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements with your health care provider. Do not stop taking any medications without first talking to your provider.

Many medicines have been used to relieve symptoms of tinnitus, but no drug works for everyone. Medications may include anti-arrhythmics (usually used for irregular heart rhythms), antidepressants, vasodilators, tranquilizers, anticonvulsants, and antihistamines.

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

A hearing aid may help reduce ear noise and make outside sounds louder.

Sometimes, counseling may help you learn to live with tinnitus. Your doctor may recommend biofeedback training. This method helps you learn to control body functions by monitoring specific responses (such as tightness of a muscle group) and altering this response through relaxation.

Some people have tried alternative therapies to treat tinnitus. These includes:

  • Acupuncture
  • Craniosacral therapy
  • Hypnosis
  • Vitamins or herbal supplements, including zinc, magnesium, ginkgo, melatonin, or B vitamins

However, such methods have not been entirely proven. Talk to your doctor before trying any of these alternative therapies.

The American Tinnitus Association offers a good resource center and support group.

Prevention

Wear ear protection in any situations where ear damage is possible (such as loud concerts or jackhammers). If you have hearing loss, avoid further damage to your hearing by avoiding excessive noise.

Make sure your blood pressure is normal by maintaining proper body weight, exercising regularly, and seeing your doctor for yearly check-ups.

References

Heller AJ. Classification and epidemiology of tinnitus. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2003; 36(2): 239-248.

Sismanis A. Tinnitus. Advances in evaluation and management. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2003; 36(2): xi-xii.

Bauer CA. Tinnitus and hyperacusis. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier;2010:chap 150.


Review Date: 7/26/2010
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M.
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