Nearly 36 million Americans experience some degree of tinnitus in their lifetime. That’s the ringing in the ears, or “head noises,” a person hears even when no external sounds are present.
The head noises can take many forms: buzzing, ringing, roaring, whining, clicking and hissing. And the intensity may range from barely audible, to noticeable only in a quiet room, to so loud that a person hears nothing else. When it’s constant and interferes with a person’s daily activities, tinnitus can even be life altering.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus is damage to the inner ear, which occurs as the result of aging or exposure to loud noises. But the ringing may also be triggered by:
- wax buildup in the ear canal
- severe ear infections
- food allergies
- high cholesterol (it clogs arteries that supply the nerves of the inner ear)
- certain illnesses, such as diabetes or arthritis
- medications, including aspirin, ibuprofen, antibiotics, antidepressants and chemotherapy
- neurologic or vascular abnormalities (they may put pressure on the inner-ear machinery or nerves)
- head trauma
- certain dental procedures
If you suspect you have tinnitus, the first step is to see your healthcare provider, who will try to discover and address the cause.
The treatments described below can eliminate tinnitus or at least lessen its unpleasant effects:
- Masking devices. Masking is the technique of producing external “white noise” to make the head noises less distracting. Masking devices come in both in-the-ear and portable models that produce random white noise, such as the sound of a waterfall. Hearing aids can also function as maskers because they amplify external sounds. Even listening to static on the radio may result in partial or total disappearance of tinnitus.
- Medications. Your healthcare provider may prescribe drugs to relieve or eliminate head noise, or to ease resulting depression or sleep difficulties.
- Lifestyle changes. While stress doesn’t cause tinnitus, it can certainly aggravate it. Experiment with various relaxation techniques. You may find that avoiding noisy environments, fatigue, alcohol and smoking can also help.
- Surgery. When vascular abnormalities are the culprit, surgery can correct the situation in which arteries press too closely against the inner ear.