Frequently Asked Questions About Tinnitus (Ringing in the Ears)
More than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus, or “ringing in the ears.” People who have tinnitus hear a high- or low-pitched sound that has no external cause. Other people can’t hear the sound, but the noise—which may be constant or intermittent—can be annoying and cause profound difficulties with work, relationships and sleep.
Here are some common questions and answers about tinnitus.
Causes of tinnitus include:
Ear or sinus infection
Excessive ear wax
Heart or blood vessel problems
Temporomandibular joint arthralgia (TMJ)
Hormonal changes in women
People who work in noisy environments, including military personnel and construction workers, and people who are frequently exposed to loud noises via their hobbies (think musicians and shooting enthusiasts) are at increased risk for developing tinnitus.
Patients’ descriptions of their symptoms are key to tinnitus diagnosis. If you report hearing occasional or constant buzzing, ringing or clicking when other people do not, there’s a good chance you have tinnitus.
Of course, your healthcare provider will perform a thorough physical exam to evaluate your hearing and overall health. Your care provider will look in your ears to check for excessive ear wax or an ear infection and ask what medications and supplements you’re taking. Your provider may also order hearing tests to see if you have hearing loss and learn more about your tinnitus. This information will help your healthcare provider develop a personalized treatment plan for you.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for tinnitus, and it may take a while for you and your doctor to find the most helpful treatment or combination of treatments. Meanwhile, these strategies may provide some relief:
Use a white noise machine to camouflage the ringing noise in your ears
Avoid loud noises
Reduce caffeine consumption
Try a low-salt diet, especially if you also have Meniere’s disease
- Practice distraction—the more you focus on or think about the ringing in your ears, the worse it is
You may not be able to completely eliminate the ringing in your ears, but with your healthcare provider’s help, you should be able to minimize your symptoms.
If no specific treatable cause is identified, there are four main courses of treatment for tinnitus:
- Hearing aids. Because hearing loss can cause tinnitus, improving hearing can also improve tinnitus symptoms. Approximately 60% of people who try hearing aids to treat tinnitus experience at least some relief.
Sound-masking devices. White noise machines, tabletop sound generators and in-ear sound-masking devices play pleasant or neutral sounds that partially cover up the ringing sound in your ears. For some people, simply playing background music or running a fan is enough to provide relief. Other people use sophisticated wearable sound generators. Some hearing aids also include built-in sound-masking technology.
Medication. To date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medication to treat tinnitus. However, if the ringing in your ears may be caused by a medication, your healthcare provider may change your dose or advise you to stop taking that medication. (Never start or stop a medication without the guidance of a healthcare professional.) If your tinnitus is affecting your mood or ability to sleep, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antidepressant or antianxiety medication.
- Counseling. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people understand and change the way they react to the ringing in their ears. Learning healthier coping strategies can improve your quality of life and prevent additional health problems.
Together, you and your healthcare provider will determine which treatment is best for you.
In many people, tinnitus is a short-lived problem. Tinnitus often improves over a period of months, with no lingering ringing in the ears.
Approximately 1 in 10 people with tinnitus develop what’s called chronic tinnitus, or ringing in the ears that last longer than six months. Medical treatment can help people with chronic tinnitus live fulfilling and satisfying lives.