Tinnitus: Ringing in the ears and what to do
Constant noise in the head— such as ringing in the ears—rarely
indicates a serious health problem, but it sure can be annoying.
Here’s how to minimize it.
Tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus) is sound in the
head with no external source. For many, it’s a ringing sound,
while for others, it’s whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming,
roaring, or even shrieking. The sound may seem to come from one ear or
both, from inside the head, or from a distance. It may be constant or
intermittent, steady or pulsating.
Almost everyone has had tinnitus for a short time after being exposed
to extremely loud noise. For example, attending a loud concert can trigger
short-lived tinnitus. Some medications (especially aspirin and other nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs taken in high doses) can cause tinnitus that goes away
when the drug is discontinued. When it lasts more than six months, it’s known
as chronic tinnitus. As many as 50 to 60 million people in the United States
suffer from this condition; it’s especially common in people over age 55 and
strongly associated with hearing loss. Many people worry that tinnitus is a
sign that they are going deaf or have another serious medical problem, but
it rarely is.
Most tinnitus is subjective, meaning that only you can hear the noise. But sometimes
it’s objective, meaning that someone else can hear it, too. For example,
if you have a heart murmur, you may hear a whooshing sound with every heartbeat;
your clinician can also hear that sound through a stethoscope. Some people hear
their heartbeat inside the ear — a phenomenon called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s more
likely to happen in older people, because blood flow tends to be more turbulent in
arteries whose walls have stiffened with age. Pulsatile tinnitus may be more noticeable
at night, when you’re lying in bed and there are fewer external sounds to mask the tinnitus.
If you notice any new pulsatile tinnitus, you should consult a clinician, because in rare
cases it is a sign of a tumor or blood vessel damage.
The course of chronic tinnitus is unpredictable. Sometimes the symptoms remain the same,
and sometimes they get worse. In about 10% of cases, the condition interferes with everyday
life so much that professional help is needed.
While there’s no cure for chronic tinnitus, it often becomes less noticeable and more manageable
over time. You can help ease the symptoms by educating yourself about the condition — for example,
understanding that it’s not dangerous. There are also several ways to help tune out the noise
and minimize its impact.
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