When you should be worried about ringing in your ears
If you’ve ever got home from a loud concert, club or sporting event and noticed a high-pitched ringing or whirring sound in your ears, you’ve experienced tinnitus.
“Tinnitus is a description, not a diagnosis,” says Professor Paul O’Flynn, consultant ENT surgeon at The Wellington Hospital.
“While people often describe the sound as ‘ringing in the ears’, tinnitus can also present itself through other sounds including humming, buzzing, hissing, or whistling.”
The sound can come and go and be present in one or both ears, and some people may also experience symptoms such as dizziness or vertigo, but it’s not necessarily the sign of a more serious problem.
“Tinnitus is more frequently experienced by those who have hearing loss or other ear problems, but it can also affect people with normal hearing,” says Gordon Harrison, chief audiologist at Specsavers. “It is very common and can occur at any age.”
We asked experts talk through everything you need to know about the condition, including when to seek medical advice.
What is tinnitus caused by?
“Often no cause for tinnitus can be identified, but it can be linked to some form of hearing loss such as age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss,” O’Flynn says.
In addition to short bouts after being exposed to loud noice, other causes can include: “Anxiety, certain medications – including some chemotherapy medicines or antibiotics – and conditions such as diabetes, blood pressure and thyroid disorders.”
Earwax build-up, ear infections and perforated eardrums can also trigger it.
“Too much earwax can block the ear canal, prevent normal hearing, disturb the eardrum and cause tinnitus,” Harrison explains.
“Ear infections – often caused by trapped fluid in the ear following a throat infection, cold, or allergies – can muffle sounds and causes tinnitus.”
When should you seek medical advice for ringing in the ears?
Most people will experience tinnitus at some point and usually it fades away fairly quickly.
“In some cases, though, it can be persistent lasting for more than five minutes or even continuously,” says Feraz Ashraf, audiologist from Boots Hearingcare.
“This can lead to disturbed sleep and distract people from carrying out daily tasks. In this instance, it’s important that you speak to your GP to see if there is an underlying issue.”
Harrison says you should speak to you doctor if the sound is pulsating or is only in one ear. “Further testing such as head imaging with MRI or CT scan may be required to identify the cause.”
O’Flynn adds: “You should consult your GP if the tinnitus is making you feel anxious, coming on more regularly or getting worse.”
How is tinnitus treated?
It’s necessary to consult a professional to determine if the tinnitus is caused by an underlying medical issue.
“If so, simple treatment could help, such as ear wax removal, or you may be prescribed medication if there’s an infection,” Ashraf says.
If there’s no discernible cause, treatment will focus on symptom relief and management.
“There are ways you can help improve your symptoms including finding ways to improve your sleep and avoiding triggers that make your tinnitus worse such as stress or loud noises,” says O’Flynn.
“A hearing aid or tinnitus masker may be appropriate. Occasionally, sound therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) – which aims to help retrain how your brain responds to tinnitus – may be helpful.”
Is it possible to prevent tinnitus?
“One of the best ways to prevent the onset of tinnitus is to protect your hearing,” says Ashraf.
“If you are doing something that involves exposure to loud noise, even if it’s only for a few minutes, it’s best to wear hearing protection.”
Harrison advises caution when wearing headphones as well: “To stay safe, you should never listen to your music above 60% volume and you should also give your ears a break every hour too.”
People who work in loud environments should be particularly careful, O’Flynn says: “At all times proper ear defenders should be worn at work when advised and if exposed to recreational noise including shooting.”