Tinnitus: What’s That Noise?

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on February 24, 2024
3 min read

Do you hear ringing in your ears when there isn’t any sound around you? That’s tinnitus. Although it's called ringing, the noise can be lots of things, from a buzz or roar to a hiss, click, or even a pulse like your heartbeat.

You might hear the noise in one ear or both ears. You might hear it all the time or it might come and go.

Tinnitus is usually a symptom of another health problem, though it can be genetic. One cause is when tiny hairs in your inner ear that help with hearing are hurt in some way. That affects the signals that go to your brain and changes how you hear sound. This damage can be caused by normal aging or many other issues.

Triggers may include:

  • Age-related hearing loss
  • Loud noises like concerts, sporting events, machinery, or backfiring engines
  • Sinus pressure from sinus or ear infections, cold, flu, or allergies
  • Too much earwax
  • Certain medications like aspirin, some antibiotics, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Migraines and other headaches
  • High blood pressure and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Jaw problems
  • Other medical issues like head and neck injuries, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, changes in your inner ear bones, and an inner ear disorder called Meniere's disease.

Your doctor will discuss your medical history. They’ll ask about any medicines you take, including supplements. They’ll do a hearing test, examine your head and neck, and look inside your ears. They might ask you to clench your jaw, move your eyes, and move your neck, arms, and legs. If the ringing gets worse when you move, that may help find a cause for it. You may also need imaging tests like CT or MRI scans.

Your doctor may not be able to find the cause. If that happens, they’ll work with you to find ways to lessen the sound or help you manage it better.

Yes. It depends on what's to blame for the ringing.

If a medication is the trigger, your doctor might suggest you stop taking it or change to a different drug. Never stop a medicine on your own without talking to your doctor first.

If a health issue like high blood pressure is the cause, your doctor can work with you to treat it. Often the ringing will improve when you get the condition under control.

If the problem is too much earwax, the doctor can remove the buildup gently. Don't use cotton swabs to try to do it yourself.

Other treatment options may include:

  • Hearing aids. These devices can help with hearing loss and tinnitus. They make the sounds you need to hear louder and make the ringing harder to notice.
  • Sound maskers. You wear them in or behind your ear to create constant low-level white noise. This helps block the ringing. You might also try a white noise machine near your bed at night to help you sleep.
  • Retraining therapy. You get counseling and wear a gadget that masks the ringing with tonal music.
  • Relaxation techniques. Tinnitus can get worse when you’re stressed. You might find ways to ease your worries, like exercise, deep breathing, or biofeedback.
  • Medicines.There are several medications that show some promise in treating tinnitus, including certain hormones, topical anesthetics, and anti-anxiety medication. Ask your doctor if any of them may be right for you.