Tinnitus is a term that describes any sound a person can hear from inside their body rather than from an outside source.

Although tinnitus is often described as 'ringing in the ears', several sounds can be heard including:

  • buzzing
  • humming
  • grinding
  • hissing
  • whistling
  • sizzling

Sometimes, the noise associated with tinnitus beats in time with a person’s pulse. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.

Read more about the different types of tinnitus.

Most people learn to live with tinnitus, but it can often have a significant impact on day-to-day life. For example, it can affect concentration and cause sleeping problems and depression.

However, tinnitus itself is a condition that isn’t harmful and usually improves over time. Although there’s currently no single treatment that works in the same way for everyone, if an underlying cause can be established it can often be effectively treated (see below).

What causes tinnitus?

A build-up of earwax, a middle ear infection or a problem with your inner ear (such as Ménière's disease) can sometimes be responsible for the sounds of tinnitus.

It's important to establish what triggers your tinnitus, whether there are particular times of the day when it's more noticeable, and whether there's anything that makes it better or worse.

For example, some people find their tinnitus is worse when they're stressed or anxious and improves when they're calm and relaxed.

Occasionally, temporary tinnitus can be the result of a blow to the head or a sudden, loud noise, such as an explosion or gunfire.

Read more about the causes of tinnitus.

Diagnosing tinnitus

See your GP if you're continually hearing sounds such as buzzing, ringing or humming, or if you have regular episodes of hearing these sounds.

They will ask about the noises and examine your ears. Your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or an audiologist (a specialist in hearing disorders).

The specialist will carry out tests to help rule out possible underlying causes. They'll also look at your medical history and ask about the type and severity of the noises you hear.

Read more about diagnosing tinnitus.

Treating tinnitus

At the moment there's no single treatment for tinnitus that works in the same way for everyone. However, research to find an effective treatment is continuing.

If an underlying cause of your tinnitus can be found, effectively treating it may help improve your tinnitus. For example, if a build-up of earwax is responsible, eardrops or ear irrigation (using a pressurised flow of water to remove the earwax) may be recommended.

If a specific cause can't be established, the focus will be on helping you manage the condition on a daily basis.

As tinnitus is often most noticeable in quiet environments, background noise such as music or the television can help distract you from the sound of tinnitus.

Listening to natural relaxing sounds, such as the sound of rain or the ocean, can also help. Environmental sound generators are small, electronic devices that produce these types of soothing sounds.

Understanding tinnitus is also very important in helping you cope with it. Tinnitus counselling involves discussing your condition with a specialist counsellor. As well as learning about your condition, your counsellor will be able to suggest ways of dealing with it.

In some cases, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be helpful for tinnitus. This type of therapy aims to change the way you think about your condition so that you're able to find more effective ways of managing it on a day-to-day basis.

Read more about treating tinnitus.

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