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13 Jul 2023

A guide to tinnitus symptoms, cause and treatments

Anna Dearden
Home Sector Specialist

Tinnitus is the name given to describe hearing noises that are not coming from around you. 

When you have tinnitus, the noises you hear are caused inside your ear.

Tinnitus is extremely common, and can sometimes disappear on its own. In this article, we’ll explore what Tinnitus is and look at some potential treatment options, such as hearing aids.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is constant and can sound like high-pitched ringing, hissing, roaring, whooshing, buzzing, or rushing noises in one or both ears. 

Tinnitus varies in severity and can have a huge impact on the life of the sufferer. Whilst some forms of tinnitus come and go, others experience a constant, relentless noise that can often be unbearable.

According to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), one in eight people (or roughly 13.2% of the UK population) experience tinnitus or live with the condition. 

What causes tinnitus?

Whilst it isn’t clear what exactly causes tinnitus, it is thought that it could be a problem caused by the ear not being able to process sounds correctly and the brain failing to intercept them. 

Overexposure to loud noises

Most cases of tinnitus are caused by damage to the inner ear. It isn’t just musicians who are susceptible to hearing problems like tinnitus, but also those who work in noisy environments like construction or in a warehouse. 

This often happens if the sufferer has been over-exposed to loud noises, such as music, or work machinery without the correct ear-defending PPE.

Inner ear damage

Tinnitus can also occur naturally as a person gets older. This happens because aspects of your ears’ hearing mechanisms weaken with age. Often, it is not always obvious if part of a person’s inner ear is damaged. 

When tinnitus occurs because of damage to the inner ear, sounds cannot pass from the outer ear to the inner ear. This can happen if the cochlea is damaged, which stops sound signals from being transmitted to the brain. 

As a result, the brain may then actively seek out sound signals, which can lead to overexposure of sounds between the brain and the ear. This can cause the high-pitched noises a tinnitus sufferer experiences. 

Ears also have a coil, which is essentially a spiralled tube containing sensitive hair cells, sometimes tinnitus can occur if these hair cells are damaged. 

Other causes

In addition to inner ear damage, tinnitus can also be caused by more mundane issues such as a build of ear wax or fluid in the middle ear cavity, known as ‘glue ear’. 

Other factors that could cause tinnitus include ear infection, a perforated eardrum, Meniere’s disease (a condition that also causes vertigo) and otosclerosis (an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear). Often, these conditions can be treated fairly quickly and easily with olive oil or antibiotics. 

Symptoms of tinnitus

Tinnitus is characterised by a continuous noise in one or both ears that is not caused by an external sound source. Only the sufferer can hear the noise. 

The noises can range from a high-pitched, continuous ringing, buzzing, humming, roaring, whooshing, hissing, or whistling. Tinnitus can come and go, or it can be constant. The latter form of tinnitus is often the most difficult for sufferers to deal with. 

Most people who have tinnitus suffer from subjective tinnitus, where only the individual can hear the noise. Other forms of tinnitus include pulsatile tinnitus, when the noise has a rhythm, often in time with your heartbeat. A doctor may be able to hear this kind of tinnitus when they conduct an examination. This is called objective tinnitus.

Can it be prevented or improved?

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for tinnitus. But it can sometimes be improved, and if not, there are ways for you to better manage your tinnitus. 

For sufferers of tinnitus that comes and goes, certain factors can exacerbate the symptoms of tinnitus. These include: 

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Anaemia 
  • Cardiovascular problems caused by smoking and obesity
  • Stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
  • Illness, common colds, flu and coronavirus
  • Exposure to loud noise such as at concerts

Tinnitus, especially pulsatile tinnitus, is sometimes caused by an issue with blood circulation. Take good care of your physical health, and this can help improve the intensity of your tinnitus. 

To prevent tinnitus, or at least stop it from worsening, limit your exposure to loud noises, and turn the volume down when listening to music. It’s important you make sure you wear the appropriate protection if you are a musician or working in a noisy environment such as construction or a factory. 

If your employer fails to provide you with the correct ear protection equipment, they are breaking the law. Speak to your employer if you feel your safety requirements are not being met at your workplace. 

And if your employer is not providing you with the appropriate PPE, you are well within your rights to file a claim against them. Some organisations like ACAS can help inform you about your workplace rights and how to move forward with a health and safety claim.

Treatment options for tinnitus

Whilst there is no cure for tinnitus, there are ways of improving your symptoms. It’s important to try and prevent your tinnitus from getting worse, and the best way to do this is to avoid listening to loud music or attending concerts. If you do, take appropriate safety precautions like wearing earplugs.

Treatment options for tinnitus can include:

  • Hearing aids
  • Treating a blood vessel condition 
  • Earwax removal 
  • Some medications can cause tinnitus, if you notice this then speak to your doctor about changing medicines

Other ways of helping you manage your tinnitus include:

  • Decreasing stress. As stress can often make your tinnitus worse, relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can help you decompress
  • Limit alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. These substances can affect blood flow and contribute to tinnitus if used in excess
  • Do not sit in silence. Use background noise such as lowe-level music or white noise, nature noises such as waves are also distracting
  • Join a support group for other sufferers of tinnitus, this may help you cope with living with tinnitus
  • Find resources. There is a lot of useful information on the British Tinnitus Association (BTS) website which provides advice and self-help information on coping with tinnitus

Whilst tinnitus can be debilitating, it’s important to know that there is support out there for you to help manage your hearing. 

When to see a doctor

For the most part, tinnitus is not a sign of anything seriously wrong with your health. However, if you or a loved one notice that your tinnitus or hearing loss is interfering with your daily activities and quality of life, it’s important to visit your doctor.

If you have tinnitus regularly or constantly, it’s worth visiting your doctor to see if there are no underlying causes. You should also visit your doctor if you notice that your tinnitus is:

  • Getting worse
  • Your tinnitus is severely impacting your life and interfering with your daily activities, if it’s making you depressed, anxious, or unable to concentrate
  • Your tinnitus beats in time with your pulse 

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience tinnitus suddenly, this could be caused by:

  • A head injury
  • Or if your tinnitus is accompanied by sudden hearing loss, dizziness, vertigo or loss of muscle movement in the face. This could be a sign of a stroke

When you visit your doctor, they will check in your ears to see if your tinnitus is caused by anything tangible like a build-up of earwax. They may recommend a hearing test if they cannot see what is causing your tinnitus. You may also be referred to an audiologist for more accurate results.

Anna Dearden
Home Sector Specialist
Combining in-depth research with an interest in all things home improvement, I aim to keep SpotDif readers up to date with interior design trends, renewable energy options, and more.
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