Tinnitus is the medical term for "hearing" noises in your ears when there is no outside source of the sounds.
Tinnitus is often called "ringing in the ears," but it may also sound like blowing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, humming, whistling, or sizzling. The noises you hear can be soft or loud. You may even think you are hearing air escaping, water running, the inside of a seashell, or musical notes.
Tinnitus is common. Almost everyone notices a mild form of tinnitus once in a while that only lasts a few minutes. However, constant or recurring tinnitus is stressful and makes it harder to focus or sleep.
It is not known exactly what causes a person to "hear" sounds with no outside source of the noise. However, tinnitus can be a symptom of almost any ear problem, including:
- Ear infections
- Foreign objects or wax in the ear
- Hearing loss from loud noises
- Meniere's disease -- an inner ear disorder that involves hearing loss and dizziness
Alcohol, caffeine, antibiotics, aspirin, or other drugs can also cause ear noises.
Tinnitus can be masked by other sounds:
- Low-level music, ticking clocks, or other noises may help you not notice the tinnitus.
- Tinnitus is often more noticeable when you go to bed at night because your surroundings are quieter. Any noise in the room, like a humidifier, white noise machine, or dishwasher, can help mask tinnitus and make it less irritating.
Learn ways to relax. Stress does not cause tinnitus, but feeling stressed or anxious can worsen it.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.
Get enough rest. Try sleeping with your head propped up in an elevated position. This lessens head congestion and may make noises less noticeable.
Protect your ears and hearing from further damage. Avoid loud places and sounds. Use earplugs if you need them.
To prevent tinnitus, wear ear protection when ear damage is possible (such as when you are at loud concerts or around jackhammers). If you have hearing loss, stay away from very loud noises to protect your hearing.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- Ear noises start after a head injury.
- The noises occur with other unexplained symptoms, like dizziness, feeling off balance, nausea, or vomiting.
- You have unexplained ear noises that bother you even after you try self-help measures.
- The noise is only in one ear and it continues for several weeks or longer.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The following tests may be done:
- Audiology/audiometry to test hearing loss
- Head CT scan
- Head MRI scan
- Blood vessel studies (angiography)
Fixing the problem, if it can be found, may make your symptoms go away. (For example, your doctor may remove ear wax.)
Talk to your health care provider about all your current medicines to see if a drug may be causing the problem. Include over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements. Do not stop taking any medication without first talking to your provider.
Many medicines have been used to relieve symptoms of tinnitus, but no drug works for everyone.
A tinnitus masker worn like a hearing aid helps some people. It delivers low-level sound directly into the ear to disguise the ear noise.
A hearing aid may help reduce ear noise and make outside sounds louder.
Sometimes, counseling may help you learn to live with tinnitus. Your doctor may suggest biofeedback training to help with stress.
Some people have tried alternative therapies to treat tinnitus. These methods have not been proven, so talk to your doctor before trying any alternative therapies.
The American Tinnitus Association offers a good resource center and support group.
Ringing in the ears; Noises or buzzing in the ears; Ear buzzing
Bauer CA. Tinnitus and hyperacusis. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 150.
Crummer RW, Sadovsky R. Tinnitus. In: Bope ET, Kellerman RD, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2014. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:section 1.
Update Date 8/4/2014
Updated by: Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.