Why You Have Tinnitus

Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, can be caused by many things. But it isn’t a disease. It’s a symptom of another health problem.

What causes the ringing? Usually it's from damage to tiny hairs in your inner ear. That changes the signals they send to your brain that control how you hear sound. You might get tinnitus as a normal part of aging, but there are other causes. It could be temporary, or it might last for the rest of your life.

Tinnitus Triggers

Age-related hearing loss: For many people, hearing gets worse as you age. This usually begins around 60. It usually affects both ears. You’ll probably notice a problem with high-frequency sounds.

Loud noises: Loud noises are a leading cause. It could be something you hear every day for years, or something that only happens once. That includes everything from concerts and sporting events to loud machinery and backfiring engines. They can affect one or both ears, and they may cause hearing loss and pain. The damage can be permanent or temporary.

Too much earwax: Your body makes this gunky stuff to trap dirt and protect your ears. But if it doesn't wash away on its own and too much piles up, it could lead to ringing or hearing loss. Your doctor can remove the buildup gently. Don't grab a cotton swab and try to do it yourself.

Certain medicines: Prescription and over-the-counter drugs can trigger ringing or make it louder. This includes aspirin, diuretics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), quinine-based medication, and certain antibiotics, antidepressants, and cancer drugs. Usually the stronger the dose, the greater your chance of problems. Often if you stop the drug, your symptoms will go away. See your doctor if you think a drug may be to blame. But don't stop taking any medication without talking to your doctor first.

Ear and sinus infections: You might notice tinnitus when you've had a cold. That could be due to an ear or sinus infection that affects your hearing and increases pressure in your sinuses. If that's the cause, it shouldn’t last long. If it doesn't get better after a week or so, see your doctor.

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TMJ: Problems with your jaw or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can cause tinnitus. You might notice popping or pain in the joint when you chew or talk. The joint shares some nerves and ligaments with your middle ear. A dentist can treat TMJ disorders and help keep ear ringing from getting worse.

Blood pressure issues: This can include high blood pressure and things that raise it in the short term, like stress, alcohol, and caffeine. Hardening of the arteries can also play a role. Blood vessels close to your middle and inner ear become less stretchy, so your blood flow is stronger and seems louder.

Other medical problems: These include changes in your inner ear bones, an inner ear disorder called Meniere's disease, or head and neck injuries. Conditions like fibromyalgia and Lyme disease also can trigger ear ringing. Your doctor will help you figure out the cause and ease the sounds.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 15, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Tinnitus Association: "Causes."

UpToDate: "Patient education: Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) (Beyond the Basics)."

Mayo Clinic:  "Symptoms and causes."

Cleveland Clinic: "Cerumen Impaction."

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: "Tinnitus."

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