You may have heard that if your ears are burning, somebody's talking about you. Something that is far more frequent, far less discussed and far more accurate is that if your ears are ringing, there is a chance you are suffering from tinnitus. In fact, if you hear a sound in your ears that isn't being caused by an external source and no one else around you can hear it, tinnitus is likely the culprit. Most patients describe this noise as a ringing, buzzing, clicking, or rushing. I find that while many of my patients have heard of the disorder, most people don't know what causes it, how to prevent it, or what to do if they start experiencing symptoms.
Advancing Age Is Just One Cause
Tinnitus isn't considered a condition, but rather the symptom of a separate underlying condition. Age-related hearing loss is perhaps the most common underlying condition that causes tinnitus. However, an ear injury or a circulatory system disorder can also be to blame. Many patients are also surprised to learn medications can trigger tinnitus. Antidepressants, aspirin, anti-inflammatories, caffeine, and some antibiotics are often tied to these noises in people's ears.
Tinnitus can be debilitating and negatively impact quality of life. Even moderate cases can interfere with an individual’s ability to work and socialize. People with tinnitus often experience:
- Distress, irritability, or frustration
- Anxiety and depression
- Frequent mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
Currently, there’s no scientific cure for tinnitus. However, if you work with your doctor, he or she may help determine what’s causing the tinnitus. By treating the underlying condition, the tinnitus is often diminished. Depending on the cause, common treatments include ear wax removal, a change of medication, or treating an underlying vascular condition. If these things don't help, many patients find relief in things like white noise machines, masking devices to block out sound, or hearing aids if the root cause is age-related hearing loss.
Preventing and Managing Tinnitus
For certain circumstances, like age-related hearing loss, preventing tinnitus is difficult. However, there are precautions you can take to help avoid it. Taking care of your hearing is the first step. This means wearing earplugs if you're going to be around loud noises, such as machinery or music, for a sustained amount of time. Turning the volume down on your music, especially if you're listening through headphones, is another preventive measure you can do.
Because many tinnitus cases are caused by underlying vascular issues, taking care of your cardiovascular health by eating right, exercising, and taking steps to ensure your veins and arteries are healthy can also go a long way in avoiding that unwanted ringing in later years.
At-home remedies for treating tinnitus that seem to be effective for patients include masking the tinnitus with white noise, such as by using a fan to block it out or a sound machine set to white noise, reducing stress, and avoiding alcohol consumption. Stress seems to make tinnitus worse. Alcohol thins the blood and makes it run through the veins more quickly, which may contribute to the noises you hear in your ears.
If you’re experiencing unexplained ringing in your ears, visit your doctor for help in determining what might be causing it.
Dr. Nowak is an audiologist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spencer R. Berthelsen, M.D., Main Campus. She’s certified by the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA). She joined Kelsey-Seybold in 2015.