Tinnitus is often called ringing in the ears, but it can be buzzing, hissing, whistling or any sound.
Tinnitus is the perception of noises in the head and/or ear which have no external source. It derives from the Latin word for ringing and those living with the condition may have to endure a ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling or other noise. The sensation can be constant or intermittent and it can vary in volume.
Is tinnitus an illness?
It is not a disease or illness; it is a symptom generated within the auditory system and usually caused by an underlying condition. The noise may be in one or both ears, or it may feel like it is in the head. It is difficult to pinpoint its exact location. It may be low, medium or high pitched and can be heard as a single noise or as multiple components.
Are there different types of tinnitus?
Occasionally people have tinnitus that can seem like a familiar tune or song. This is known as musical tinnitus or musical hallucination. Some people have tinnitus which has a beat in time with their heartbeat. This is called pulsatile tinnitus.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus can develop gradually over time or occur suddenly. It's not clear exactly why it happens, but it often occurs along with some degree of hearing loss.
Tinnitus is often associated with:
age-related hearing loss
inner ear damage caused by repeated exposure to loud noises
an earwax build-up
a middle ear infection
Ménière's disease – a condition that also causes hearing loss and vertigo (a spinning sensation)
otosclerosis – an inherited condition where an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear causes hearing loss
However, around one in every three people with tinnitus doesn't have any obvious problem with their ears or hearing.
Who is affected?
Most people have experienced short periods of tinnitus after being exposed to loud noises, such as after a music concert.
In the UK, more persistent tinnitus is estimated to affect around six million people (10% of the population) to some degree, with about 600,000 (1%) experiencing it to a severity that affects their quality of life.
Tinnitus can affect people of all ages, including children, but is more common in people aged over 65.
There's currently no single treatment for tinnitus that works 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, removing a build-up of earwax might help.
If a specific cause can't be found, treatment will focus on helping you manage the condition on a daily basis. This may involve:
sound therapy – listening to neutral sounds to distract you from the sound of tinnitus
counselling – therapy that aims to educate you about tinnitus and help you learn to cope with it more effectively
cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – therapy that aims to help change the way you think about your tinnitus so it becomes less noticeable
tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) – therapy that aims to help retrain the way your brain responds to tinnitus so you start to tune the sound out and become less aware of it