What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus is a condition where you perceive noises coming from inside your ears, even when there are no sounds around you. It’s possible to experience tinnitus in one ear (unilateral tinnitus) or both ears at once and it can begin suddenly or come on gradually, but this will depend on the cause and type of tinnitus.
What does tinnitus sound like?
Here are some examples of sounds typically associated with tinnitus, supplied by the British Tinnitus Association.
Please make sure your volume is set at a comfortable listening level.
If you are experiencing something similar with the symptoms of a hearing loss, our audiologists can test your hearing and discuss what options are available and what you can do next.
Types of tinnitus
This is the most common type of tinnitus. It refers to sounds heard inside the ear by the sufferer only. This can be caused by problems in your ear and the way your hearing nerve communicates with the brain.
Very rarely, people in close proximity to the sufferer can also hear their tinnitus sounds. This is usually caused by something that produces sound, like a narrowing of blood vessels in the ear or muscle contractions
Occasionally, people will hear tinnitus noises that beat in time with their pulse. This is usually linked to disturbances in the blood flow around your head or neck.
Causes of tinnitus
Although it’s a common condition, we still don’t fully understand exactly what causes the sounds we identify as tinnitus. Possible causes include a number of things:
Earwax protects the ear by trapping bacteria and dirt in the ear canal before they can reach the eardrum. However, too much earwax can block the ear canal, prevent normal hearing, disturb the eardrum and cause tinnitus.
If you think you have tinnitus due to earwax, we recommend booking an appointment with an audiologist to confirm the cause. In selected stores, you can also take advantage of our earwax removal service without having to see a GP.
Cholesteatoma is a benign growth of skin cells behind the eardrum, often triggered by ear infections, which can cause hearing loss and tinnitus in the affected ear. If left untreated, the growth can erode the middle ear bones, causing hearing loss. Standard treatment for cholesteatoma is a simple procedure to remove the growth.
If cancerous cells affect auditory nerves or the ear, it can result in unilateral tinnitus.
Cancer that occurs in the ear, the nose, the throat, or the brain can cause unilateral tinnitus. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of unilateral tinnitus, it's best to visit your GP to check for any underlying causes. There are many treatments available, and your doctor will be able to advise you on the best one for you.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disorder where the immune system attacks the protective sheath of nerve fibres, causing communication problems inside and outside of the brain.
Common neurological symptoms of MS include muscle weakness and numbness of the extremities, vision problems, coordination problems, and fatigue. Unilateral tinnitus can also occur in MS. There are many treatments, such as anti-inflammatory steroids, that can slow down the progression of neurological symptoms of MS.
It’s possible to rupture your eardrum by injuring your outer or middle ear. A perforated eardrum can cause pain, hearing loss, fluid drainage, and tinnitus.
Infections can sometimes cause a perforated eardrum. A small eardrum perforation can usually heal on its own, but a larger eardrum perforation may require surgery to repair it.
These are usually caused by fluid becoming trapped in the ear following a throat infection, cold, or allergies. Infections in the middle ear can sometimes cause temporary tinnitus as the increase in fluid muffles sound. This causes the brain to re-interpret the sounds, resulting in tinnitus. This type of tinnitus should disappear once the ear infection has been resolved.
Symptoms of an ear infection include pain in the ear, a feeling of fullness, hearing loss and dizziness, as well as the presence of a thick, yellow liquid coming from the ear. An ear infection is usually easily treatable by antibiotics or ear drops.
In Ménière’s disease, fluid pressure builds up in the inner ear, which can distort hair-cells, causing unilateral tinnitus that is usually low-pitched. Other symptoms of Ménière’s disease include dizziness and hearing loss.
It’s also thought that exposure to loud noise can trigger tinnitus, like going to a loud gig or concert. Here are some examples of loud noises that can cause tinnitus:
- Rock concerts (120 dB)
- Ambulance sirens (120 dB)
- Nightclubs (110dB)
- Loud machinery (115-120 dB)
- Personal music player/headphones (112 dB)
- Hand drills (98 dB)
- Heavy traffic (85 dB)
- Lawn mowers (85 dB)
If you were recently exposed to loud noises like these, you may just have temporary tinnitus, which could go away within a few days. In some cases, temporary tinnitus can take longer to go away – if it lasts longer than two weeks, it is advisable to speak to your GP.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety tend to worsen tinnitus2. The auditory system has neural connections to the limbic (emotional) part of the brain. When the limbic system is overly active, the brain has more difficulty shutting down tinnitus.
Furthermore, as the tinnitus continues, it can cause stress and anxiety levels to rise, which in turn increases the symptoms of tinnitus3. In order to break this vicious cycle, you should try to reduce your stress. Simple techniques to help you reduce your levels of stress include mindfulness, deep breathing and physical exercise.
Jo Whiley talks tinnitus
The symptoms of tinnitus can be worrying, but you’re not alone – it’s estimated that around 10% of adults in the UK experience tinnitus, including popular broadcaster Jo Whiley.
After years spent wearing headphones and DJing in clubs, broadcaster Jo Whiley has revealed that her career has taken its toll on her hearing – she suffers from tinnitus:
“My tinnitus tends to flare up if I’ve been at a gig, DJing at a club, or wearing headphones for long periods of time which is frustrating as I love live music. It can affect me for days afterwards and I have a constant whistle in my ears which can be hard to live with.’
- Jo Whiley, broadcaster
If you’re experiencing problems with your hearing, contact your audiologist or GP. They will likely ask some questions about your symptoms to help them diagnose you, such as:
- Is the sound you’re hearing in both ears?
- Is the sound constantly there or does it come and go?
- Have you noticed a loss in hearing as well?
What should I do if I have tinnitus in one ear?
If you think tinnitus may be developing in one ear, go and see your GP. When tinnitus is apparent in one ear only, further testing such as head imaging with MRI or CT scan may be required to identify the cause.
Tinnitus treatment and relief
There is no single cure for tinnitus, but there are treatments that can help. The first step is to try and eliminate the cause of your tinnitus, so it’s important to find out why you are getting it. If tinnitus is a side effect of a medical condition, like an ear infection, then treating that condition may resolve the symptoms of tinnitus.
If your tinnitus is not caused by a medical condition, there are options that can help you cope with the effects of it - such as sound therapy. For example, many people find it helpful to use background noises, like music or television, to take the prominence away from the sound of their tinnitus.
If it’s affecting your everyday life, and causing you stress, there are counselling and therapy services that can help you learn how to cope with it more effectively. There are also hearing aids which have special tinnitus programmes which produce sounds that help to mask the tinnitus.
Some people don’t notice their tinnitus all the time, so they may benefit from hearing aids with a program change button, a remote, or the ability to connect to a smartphone app to adjust the tinnitus sounds.
There are also two different types of behavioural therapies that are currently used to help treat tinnitus.
Tinnitus retraining therapy, for example, (TRT) reprograms the way your subconscious processes tinnitus, teaching the brain to ignore the internal sound stimuli unless you purposely focus on them. The goal here is to eliminate the anxiety that comes with tinnitus, though it requires long-term commitment.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is another option for those with tinnitus, though it also requires a time commitment. This therapy changes the way a person thinks about and reacts to tinnitus and encourages you to stop viewing tinnitus as an annoying sound.
Tinnitus and hearing loss
Many people who suffer from tinnitus also have hearing difficulties. In this case, hearing aids can help, as amplified sounds help to keep the brain ‘busy’ and take the focus away from the tinnitus.
If the symptoms persist or you are concerned about your tinnitus, you should contact your GP who may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist. They’ll be able to suggest ways of dealing with the problem. If a specific cause can’t be established, the focus will be on helping you manage the condition.
1. Adegbiji WA, Olajide GT, Olubi O, et al. Characteristics and Management of Childhood Tinnitus in a Developing Country. The International Tinnitus Journal. 2018;22(1):66-71.