What is tinnitus (ringing in ears)?
Tinnitus (ringing in ears) is a condition where you hear noises coming from inside your ears, even when there are no sounds around you. The noise you hear when you have tinnitus isn't caused by an external sound, and other people can't hear it because it’s typically caused by an internal condition. Tinnitus can occur in one ear (unilateral tinnitus) or both ears at once, and it can begin suddenly or come on gradually, depending on the cause and type of tinnitus.
How common is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is very common and can occur in people of all ages. About 30% of people will experience short-term tinnitus at some point in their lives, and approximately 13% of people live with persistent tinnitus symptoms.1 Although tinnitus is more common in people who have hearing loss or other ear problems, it can also affect people with normal hearing.
What does tinnitus sound like?
Here are some examples of tinnitus sounds, supplied by the British Tinnitus Association. Many people commonly describe tinnitus as a ringing in the ears, however the different types of sound can vary from patient to patient.
Please make sure your volume is set at a comfortable listening level.
If you are experiencing something similar with the symptoms of a hearing loss, our audiologists can test your hearing and discuss what options are available and what you can do next.
Different types of tinnitus
This is the most common type of tinnitus. It refers to sounds heard inside the ear and only by the sufferer, and is usually experienced as a buzzing, pulsing or ringing in the ears. This can be caused by problems in your ear and the way your hearing nerve is communicating with the brain.
Very rarely, people in close proximity to the sufferer can also hear their tinnitus sounds. This is usually caused by something that produces sound, like a narrowing of blood vessels in the ear, or muscle contractions.
Occasionally, people will hear tinnitus noises that beat in time with their pulse — like they are hearing a heartbeat in their ear. This is usually linked to disturbances in the blood flow around your head or neck.
Although it’s a common condition, we still don’t fully understand exactly what causes the sounds we identify as tinnitus. Possible causes of tinnitus include:
Earwax protects the ear by trapping bacteria and dirt in the ear canal before they can reach the eardrum. However, too much earwax can block the ear canal, preventing normal hearing, disturbing the eardrum and causing tinnitus.
If you think you have tinnitus due to earwax, we recommend booking an appointment with an audiologist to confirm the cause. In selected stores, you can also take advantage of our earwax removal service without having to see a GP.
Will tinnitus go away after removing earwax?
If your tinnitus has been caused by the compacted earwax then yes, there is a possibility that removing the wax will resolve the tinnitus symptoms. If you have other symptoms related to the build-up of earwax and your tinnitus started around the same time, there is a higher chance your tinnitus is earwax related. It’s important that you don’t try to remove impacted wax yourself, though, as this could cause damage to the inside of your ear. Trying to clean or wash out your ears yourself can not only be painful, it can lead to further impaction and potential damage to the eardrum.
Cholesteatoma is a benign growth of skin cells behind the eardrum, often triggered by ear infections, which can cause hearing loss and tinnitus in the affected ear. If left untreated, the growth can erode the middle ear bones, causing hearing loss. Cholesteatomas can be treated by Ear Nose and Throat doctors, who will perform a procedure to remove the growth
If you have been diagnosed with cancer or are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, you may notice symptoms of tinnitus in just one ear, known as unilateral tinnitus.
Cancer that occurs in the ear, the nose, the throat or the brain can cause unilateral tinnitus. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of unilateral tinnitus, it's best to visit your GP to check for any underlying causes. There are many treatments available, and your doctor will be able to advise you on the best one for you.
It’s possible to rupture your eardrum by injuring your outer or middle ear. A perforated eardrum can cause pain, hearing loss, fluid drainage and tinnitus.
Infections can sometimes cause a perforated eardrum. A small eardrum perforation will usually heal by itself, but a larger eardrum perforation may require surgery to repair it.
In Ménière’s disease, fluid pressure builds up in the inner ear, which can distort hair-cells and cause unilateral tinnitus that is usually low-pitched. Other symptoms of Ménière’s disease include dizziness and hearing loss
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disorder where the immune system attacks the protective sheath of nerve fibres, causing communication problems inside and outside of the brain. Common neurological symptoms of MS include muscle weakness and numbness of the extremities, vision problems, coordination problems and fatigue. Unilateral tinnitus can also occur in MS. There are many treatments, such as anti-inflammatory steroids, that can slow down the progression of the neurological symptoms of MS.
It’s thought that exposure to loud noise, such as at a gig or concert, can trigger tinnitus. If you were recently exposed to loud noises like these, you may just have temporary tinnitus, which should go away within a few days. People with noise-induced hearing loss can have trouble understanding conversations in places where there is lots of background noise, because the damaged auditory system can no longer separate different sounds as easily. Noise-induced hearing loss often worsens when you continue to spend time in loud environments without protecting your ears.
If you are often in noisy environments, Specsavers can custom-make earplugs to fit your ear size and shape, ensuring the maximum amount of protection.
As people grow older, they may find they start to gradually lose their hearing, often starting with high-pitch sounds.
Some research suggests that the loss of sensitivity to certain frequencies of sound, such as the highest frequencies, can lead to changes in how the brain perceives these sounds.6 It’s thought that because the brain can no longer sense the high-frequency noises, it replaces the missing sound impulses with the ‘phantom sounds’ associated with tinnitus.
These are usually caused by fluid becoming trapped in the ear following a throat infection, cold, or allergies. Infections in the middle ear can sometimes cause temporary tinnitus as the increase in fluid muffles sound. This causes the brain to re-interpret the sounds, resulting in tinnitus. This type of tinnitus should disappear once the ear infection has been resolved.
Symptoms of an ear infection include pain in the ear, a feeling of fullness, hearing loss and dizziness, as well as the presence of a thick, yellow liquid coming from the ear. An ear infection is usually easily treatable by antibiotics or ear drops.
There is some evidence that links tinnitus to coronavirus. For example, a survey by the Manchester University Hospitals NHS Trust found that 13.2% of patients reported a change of hearing and/or tinnitus after being diagnosed with COVID-19, and just over 5% reported developing tinnitus.²⁵ A more recent analysis of 24 coronavirus studies found that 14.8% experienced tinnitus as a symptom.²⁶
Side effects of tinnitus
Tinnitus can have a number of knock-on effects on quality of life, including:
Sleep is essential for restoring energy, but people who have tinnitus may have difficulty sleeping due to the constant ringing or humming sound in their ears.
Decrease in concentration
If you suffer from tinnitus, it can be difficult to focus on other things. As a result, tinnitus can disturb work performance and make activities such as reading and studying more difficult. If you find that tinnitus is affecting your ability to carry out everyday activities like reading or watching TV, it’s best to seek advice from an audiologist, who can advise you on what steps to take.
Jo Whiley talks tinnitus
The symptoms of tinnitus can be worrying, but you’re not alone – it’s estimated that around 10% of adults in the UK experience tinnitus, including popular broadcaster Jo Whiley.
After years spent wearing headphones and DJing in clubs, broadcaster Jo Whiley has revealed that her career has taken its toll on her hearing – she suffers from tinnitus:
“My tinnitus tends to flare up if I’ve been at a gig, DJing at a club, or wearing headphones for long periods of time which is frustrating as I love live music. It can affect me for days afterwards and I have a constant whistle in my ears which can be hard to live with.’
- Jo Whiley, broadcaster
Tinnitus and dizziness
People who experience ringing in their ears often also report having symptoms of dizziness. This is quite common, as both these conditions are closely related to your ear health, though in different ways.
Why am I dizzy?
Dizzy spells are usually characterised by feeling unsteady or lightheaded, and are most commonly caused by medications, migraines or alcohol. However, sometimes an undiagnosed issue with your inner ear can cause dizziness.
Our sense of balance relies on input from our inner ears, eyes, and joints. Any disorder that affects these areas of the body and the coordination of their signals in the brain may cause dizziness.2 The structures in our inner ears play an especially important role in maintaining our sense of balance. Feelings of dizziness can occur when the fine hairs and fluid in the inner ear are affected by a change in pressure. Some conditions which can cause this include:
- Ménière’s disease
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (where head movements cause vertigo)
- Low blood pressure
- Anaemia (fatigue due to your body lacking enough healthy red blood cells)
- Orthostatic hypotension (where your blood pressure falls rapidly when you stand up)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Autoimmune inner ear disease
If you have been having dizzy spells, your first step is to see your GP. If you experience dizziness frequently, you should avoid driving or operating heavy machinery, get up slowly from a sitting position and be careful on uneven surfaces.
What can cause dizziness and ringing in the ears?
Dizziness and tinnitus can be symptoms of Ménière’s disease.3 People with Ménière’s disease experience vertigo — a spinning sensation — that lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. Additional symptoms include fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus, and a feeling of pressure in the ear.
Your inner ear contains fluid called endolymphatic fluid. Ménière’s disease stems from increased levels of this fluid in the ear. Treatment options focus on reducing fluid levels in the ear. Your doctor may recommend one or more of these approaches:
- A low-salt diet
- Diuretic medication
- Surgery, in severe cases
Along with treatment to reduce the frequency and severity of Ménière’s disease episodes, your doctor might suggest that you try hearing aids. Hearing aid technology may be programmed with several different modes so that you can adjust them as your hearing levels fluctuate.
If you’re experiencing problems with your hearing, contact your audiologist or GP. They will likely ask some questions about your symptoms to help them diagnose you, such as:
- Is the sound you’re hearing in both ears?
- Is the sound constantly there or does it come and go?
- Have you noticed a loss in hearing as well?
Tinnitus tests are designed to diagnose and assess the severity of the condition. This can involve a hearing test for tinnitus, to evaluate the sound of different frequencies and volumes or a physical exam of the ears. Once the tinnitus tests have been carried out and the condition has been diagnosed, there are treatments available to help, such as ear wax removal drops and hearing aids for tinnitus.
What’s the best tinnitus treatment for me?
Different therapies have different pros and cons. Hearing aids and sound therapies are the fastest and most convenient solutions. TRT and CBT work with any tinnitus, but they require time and long-term commitment. While there are many medications for tinnitus, each of them is usually effective for specific types of tinnitus and can have many side effects.
Consult with a professional today
If you think you have tinnitus and hearing loss, you can book a hearing appointment with one of Specsavers’ audiologists. If you think you have tinnitus but don’t feel like you have a hearing loss you can contact the British Tinnitus Association for more information on support. If your tinnitus is pulsatile or unilateral (in one ear only), you should speak to your GP.
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- Heart.org. (2017). What is high blood pressure? [online] Available at: https://www.heart.org/-/media/data-import/downloadables/pe-abh-what-is-high-blood-pressure-ucm_300310.pdf [Accessed 30 Aug. 2019]
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