Tinnitus refers to the perception of sounds — often described as a buzzing or ringing in the ears — that do not come from the external world. The condition can make everyday life demanding and stressful, and in some cases can bring to light the
symptoms of a hearing loss.
In the majority of tinnitus cases, the noises do not bother or interfere severely with daily activities, however, about 20% of tinnitus sufferers do require treatment to improve their quality of life.
Understanding what causes your tinnitus is the first step to treating it. Here, we take a look at the various causes of tinnitus, specifically the underlying conditions it can be a symptom of.
What can tinnitus be a symptom of?
In many cases, tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying condition somewhere in the auditory system, such as an ear infection or a change in the levels of fluid in the ear. However, it can also be caused by stress and anxiety.
Ear infections can be one common cause of tinnitus. These usually occur when fluid becomes trapped in the ear following a throat infection, cold, or allergy attack. 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.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety tend to worsen tinnitus1. 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 tinnitus2. 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.
Too much earwax can block the ear canal, preventing normal hearing, and causing tinnitus. Find out more about earwax and tinnitus here.
Ménière's disease is a condition that affects the inner ear, causing episodes of tinnitus. Endolymphatic fluid in the cochlea of the inner ear normally helps the hearing mechanism function properly. However, with Ménière's disease, excessive fluid build-up can lead to fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus, dizziness, and a feeling of pressure in the ear. Find out more on the link between tinnitus and dizziness here.
Glue ear (also known as otitis media with effusion) is a condition caused by a build-up of fluid in the inner ear where there is normally air. This fluid then disturbs the vibrations in the eardrum making it harder to hear, alongside causing symptoms such as tinnitus. Glue ear can affect one or both ears and is more common in children than adults. If your child is experiencing tinnitus related to glue ear, it might be more difficult for them to explain their symptoms, so it's important to keep an eye out for problems with their hearing at home or in school. Find out more about glue ear.
Other underlying causes of tinnitus
Tinnitus can also be a symptom of underlying conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and some types of cancer. In these cases, tinnitus is usually caused by damage to the auditory or neurological nerves as a result of cancerous cells, or the immune system attacking healthy cells in the case of MS. Sometimes, tinnitus caused by cancer may also just occur in one ear. If you’re suddenly experiencing tinnitus symptoms, it’s best to visit your GP
for a check-up.
Alongside underlying medical causes, tinnitus can also be a side effect of some medications including chemotherapy medicines, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin. It’s recommended to speak to your doctor if you are taking any medications and have noticed tinnitus symptoms.
Noticing tinnitus symptoms?
If you have have noticed a change in your hearing, or sudden tinnitus symptoms such as a ringing in your ears, the first step is to have a hearing test to uncover any underlying problems. Book a hearing appointment today with one of our Specsavers audiologists. You can also learn more about tinnitus and hearing loss by exploring the articles on our dedicated tinnitus resource.
1. British Tinnitus Association (2020), Tinnitus and Stress. [online] Available at: https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/tinnitus-and-stress, [accessed 13/05/21].
2. CapTel. (2014). Quell anxiety to improve tinnitus symptoms. [online] Available at: https://www.captel.com/2014/03/quell-anxiety-to-improve-tinnitus-symptoms/ [accessed 13/05/21].
3. Roberts, L., Eggermont, J., Caspary, D., Shore, S., Melcher, J. and Kaltenbach, J. (2010). Ringing Ears: The Neuroscience of Tinnitus. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(45), pp.14972-14979.
4. British Tinnitus Association (2020), What causes Tinnitus?. [online] Available at: https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/faqs/what-causes-tinnitus [accessed 13/05/21].