Health A to Z
Tinnitus is the term for hearing sounds that come from inside your body, rather than from an outside source.
It's often described as "ringing in the ears", although several sounds can be heard, including:
Some people may hear sounds similar to music or singing, and others hear noises that beat in time with their pulse (pulsatile tinnitus).
You may also notice that your hearing is not as good as it used to be or you're more sensitive to everyday sounds (hyperacusis).
Tinnitus is rarely a sign of a serious underlying condition. For some people it may come and go and only be a minor irritation.
However, it can sometimes be continuous and have a significant impact on everyday life. Severe cases can be very distressing, affect concentration, and cause problems such as difficulty sleeping (insomnia) and depression.
In many cases, tinnitus will get better gradually over time. But it's important to seek medical advice to see if an underlying cause can be found and treated, and to help you find ways to cope with the problem.
You should see your GP if you continually or regularly hear sounds such as buzzing, ringing or humming in your ears.
They can examine your ears to see if the problem might be caused by a condition they could easily treat, such as an ear infection or earwax build-up. They can also do some simple checks to see if you have any hearing loss.
If necessary, your GP can refer you to a hospital specialist for further tests and treatment.
Read more about diagnosing 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:
However, around one in every three people with tinnitus doesn't have any obvious problem with their ears or hearing.
Read more about the causes of tinnitus.
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:
Read more about how tinnitus is treated.
It's not clear exactly what causes tinnitus, but it's thought to be a problem with how the ear hears sounds and how the brain interprets them.
Many cases are associated with hearing loss caused by damage to the inner ear, although around one person in every three with the condition doesn't have any obvious problem with their ears or hearing.
Sounds pass from the outer ear through to the inner ear, which contains the cochlea and auditory nerve. The cochlea is a coiled, spiral tube containing a large number of sensitive hair cells. The auditory nerve transmits sound signals to the brain.
If part of the cochlea is damaged, it will stop sending information to your brain. The brain may then actively "seek out" signals from parts of the cochlea that still work. These signals might then become over-represented in the brain, which may cause the sounds of tinnitus.
In older people, damage to the cochlea often occurs naturally with age. In younger people, it can be caused by repeated exposure to excessive noise.
As well as inner ear damage, there are several other possible causes of tinnitus. These include:
Less commonly, tinnitus may develop as a result of:
You should see your GP if you have a problem with your hearing, such as hearing ringing or buzzing sounds.
They will ask you some questions about your symptoms, such as:
They may also want to know whether you're taking any medication that could cause the condition, such as high doses of antibiotics or aspirin.
They might also carry out a simple test of your hearing and arrange blood tests to look for conditions sometimes associated with tinnitus, such as anaemia (a reduction in red blood cells), diabetes or a problem with your thyroid gland.
In some cases, your GP may refer you to a hearing specialist called an audiologist, who can carry out a range of hearing tests and talk to you about the treatments available.
Alternatively, you may be referred to the ear, nose and throat (ENT) department of your hospital.
At your appointment, an ENT specialist will examine your ears, ask you about the type and severity of the noises you can hear, and carry out tests to try to establish what's causing them.
Very occasionally, you may have a computerised tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. These scans will allow the specialist to closely examine the inside of your ear and brain.
There's not usually a quick fix for tinnitus, but it will often improve gradually over time. A number of treatments are available to help you cope.
If your tinnitus is caused by an underlying health condition, treating the condition will help stop or reduce the sounds you hear.
For example, if your tinnitus is caused by an earwax build-up, eardrops or ear irrigation may be used. Ear irrigation involves using a pressurised flow of water to remove the earwax.
Read more about how an earwax build-up is treated.
However, in many cases a cause for tinnitus can't be found, so treatments will be used to help you manage the problem on a daily basis. These are described below.
Any degree of hearing loss you have should be addressed because straining to listen can make tinnitus worse.
Correcting even fairly minor hearing loss means the parts of the brain involved in hearing don't have to work as hard and therefore don't pay as much attention to the tinnitus.
A specialist will test your hearing and recommend appropriate treatment. This could involve having a hearing aid fitted, and occasionally surgery.
Improving your hearing will also mean sounds you wouldn't otherwise hear will now be audible, which may help override the sounds of your tinnitus.
Read more about treating hearing loss.
Tinnitus is often most noticeable in quiet environments. The aim of "sound therapy" or "sound enrichment" is to fill any silence with neutral sounds to distract you from the sound of tinnitus.
This may involve simple measures such as opening a window to hear noises coming from outside, leaving a radio or television on, or listening to sounds on a portable music player.
You can get specially-designed sound generators that look similar to a radio. These produce quiet natural sounds, such as leaves rustling in the wind and waves lapping on the shore. White noise generators are similar devices that produce a continuous "shushing" sound at a level that's comfortable and soothing.
Also available are pillows containing built-in speakers to help distract you from tinnitus when you go to sleep, and small sound-generator devices that fit in your ear like a hearing aid. Some hearing aids have built-in sound generators for people with tinnitus.
Understanding tinnitus plays an important part in learning how to cope with the condition and manage it more effectively.
Tinnitus counselling is a type of therapy where you work with a healthcare professional to help you learn more about your tinnitus and find ways of coping with it. It's usually carried out by hearing therapists, audiologists (hearing disorder specialists) or doctors.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often used to treat mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. It's based on the idea that your thoughts affect the way you behave. Treatment aims to retrain the way you think to change your behaviour.
This technique can be effectively applied to tinnitus. For example, if your knowledge about tinnitus is limited, you may have certain ideas about it that make you feel anxious and depressed. This can make your tinnitus worse.
Changing the way you think about your tinnitus and what you do about it can help reduce your anxiety and enable you to accept the noises, which after a while may become less noticeable.
Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) is a special type of 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. The therapy involves a combination of more intensive sound therapy and long-term counselling.
TRT is widely available privately and may be available on the NHS for people with very severe or persistent tinnitus. It should only be carried out by someone specially trained in the technique.
Some people find self-help techniques useful for managing their tinnitus. These techniques include:
You may also find the British Tinnitus Association a useful source of information. You can call their confidential helpline free of charge on 0800 018 0527.
Jan Dawson was diagnosed with Ménière's disease a few years ago. She also has hearing loss and tinnitus. Jan talks about how time and being positive has helped her get used to the condition.
"It wasn't long after I'd moved into a new, much quieter house in Edinburgh when I noticed a strange noise in my ear, a bit like a radio transmitter. It started fairly quietly but then gradually got more noticeable. I was only 27.
"It worried me because I'd also been hearing heartbeat-like noises in my other ear. I'd had that on and off since I was small. I went to my GP to get it checked out and was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist. After some hearing tests, I was diagnosed with Ménière's disease with symptoms of tinnitus and hearing loss.
"I remember thinking, 'Surely I'm too young to get tinnitus?' and wondered how I was going to cope with this ringing in my ears for the rest of my life. It was really upsetting as I was told there was no cure.
"As well as my tinnitus I have low-level hearing loss, which means I struggle to hear people, especially in work meetings. I keep being tested for hearing loss and it hasn't got any worse, but I think the tinnitus might be getting louder.
"It's there in the background all the time. I notice it more when I'm stressed. That's when I think it gets a bit louder. It's a high-pitched noise that changes randomly and sounds like someone trying to tune a radio.
"I've got used to my tinnitus. It's not so loud that it stops me hearing everything that's going on. And when there's lots of other background noise, I don't really hear it.
"I still go to clubs where there is loud music, but I wear a special set of earplugs to protect my hearing. I love listening to music on my iPod. When I play it with the volume low, I drown out the tinnitus and get some relief.
"I don't take any treatments for tinnitus, but I try not to get too stressed. I now have a 17-month-old daughter and was warned that the Ménière's might worsen during pregnancy, but luckily this didn't happen.
"Being positive is the key. If you let the condition get to you, like I did at the beginning, you start to think about it all the time and notice it a lot more. If you can learn to live with it, then it makes life a lot easier."
Paul Burrows has had tinnitus for as long as he can remember. He reveals what it's like to live with it.
"I only realised I had the condition in 1994, when my doctor diagnosed me with hearing loss and told me I also had tinnitus. Until then, I always thought the noises I heard were normal, that everyone else heard them.
"I've decided to name all the different sounds I hear because there are so many. The names I give them describe exactly what they sound like. The most obvious one is the sound of the sea.
"I also get whistling, which a lot of people with tinnitus experience, and there's one that I call a flock of seagulls. I've also got one I call television, although it's more like hearing a television in the next room as you can't actually hear what's being said.
"The worst thing about my tinnitus is that I might have the flock of seagulls noise in one ear and the television noise in the other.
"I'm also profoundly deaf, and one night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought I could hear again. I said to my wife, 'I can hear the clock ticking', but it was a sound caused by my tinnitus.
"My hearing loss bothers me but my tinnitus doesn't. It's always been there."