Sounds heard in one or both ears in the absence of external noise
People with tinnitus hear sounds that originate within the ear itself. These sounds may include ringing, buzzing, whistling, roaring, or hissing noises in the ears. These sounds may vary in intensity and pulse in time with the heartbeat, but they are usually continuous. For some people, the episodes of tinnitus are brief, but for others it is a permanent condition.
In many cases, tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, and your risk of developing tinnitus is increased if you have previously been exposed to loud noises. The condition is more common in older people and affects approximately 3 in 10 people over the age of 60.
Most people with tinnitus are only aware of the sounds when they listen carefully, but for others the condition may be intrusive and lead to difficulties in concentrating or in getting to sleep (see Insomnia). In these cases, tinnitus may lead to depression and anxiety disorders.
In some cases, tinnitus can be the result of a deficiency of the blood pigment that carries oxygen (see Anaemia) or an overactive thyroid gland (see Hyperthyroidism). Other causes of tinnitus include head injuries and treatment with various drugs, such as aspirin (see Painkillers) and certain antibiotics. Tinnitus that affects one ear only may be a symptom of a tumour affecting the vestibulo-cochlear nerve, which carries information from the inner ear to the brain (see Acoustic neuroma).
If you develop tinnitus, particularly if it affects one ear only, you should consult your doctor.
Your doctor will examine your ear with a viewing instrument called an otoscope (see Otoscopy) and may arrange for hearing tests. He or she may also arrange for other tests to look for an underlying disorder. These tests may include a blood test for anaemia, as well as CT scanning or MRI to rule out a tumour.
If an underlying cause is found and successfully treated, the tinnitus may improve. If tinnitus persists, your doctor may recommend a device called a masker. This device, worn in or behind the ear like a hearing aid, produces sounds that distract you from the tinnitus. If tinnitus accompanies hearing loss, a hearing aid may provide relief by increasing your awareness of background noise while masking the internal sounds. Many people with tinnitus find that background noise, such as playing music, reduces their awareness of the sounds in their ears.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.