often described as “ringing in your ears,” tinnitus (pronounced ti-NIGHT-us or IN-the-us) is a symptom that encompasses any perception of sound when there’s no real external cause for it.
Chances are, you’ve experienced random, short-lived bursts of tinnitus before, like buzzing in your ears after attending a concert or a strange static noise in your head while sitting in a silent room. Nearly 15% of Americans—more than 50 million people—experience some form of tinnitus, per the American Tinnitus Association (ATA). However, for roughly 20 million people, tinnitus doesn’t just go away, and another 2 million people experience extreme and debilitating symptoms.
As an auditory phenomenon, tinnitus has quite a range. It could sound like crickets chirping, cicadas buzzing, high-pitched squeals, low-pitched hums, or even multiple pitches simultaneously, says Jackie Clark, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical audiologist and clinical associate professor at the School of Brain and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. You might also hear roaring, whooshing, hissing, whistling, or clicking noises in one ear, both ears, or in the middle of your head.
While tinnitus isn’t a disease in and of itself, it can serve as a sign of numerous underlying health conditions, says Clark. In fact, roughly 200 different disorders can cause confusing or distressing noises in your head, per the ATA. For this reason (and because the symptom can significantly impact your quality of life), it’s important to get your tinnitus checked out if it’s become a persistent problem.
Wishing you had an off-switch for the ringing in your ears? Read on for common causes of tinnitus and what to do about it, with expert insight from audiologists.
1. You’re always surrounded by loud noises.
If you’re noticing a high-pitched buzzing or ringing in your ears, noise exposure may be at the root of your tinnitus, says Catherine Palmer, Ph.D., president of the American Academy of Audiology and the director of Audiology and Hearing Aids at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. This is often the case for factory, construction, or road crew workers, veterans and active-duty service members, people in the music industry, and hunters.
There are thousands of hair cells in your inner ear which are arranged by the type of sound they’re responsible for responding to, and those that take in higher pitches (like the flute, for example) are located at the base of your cochlea (the spiral-shaped cavity of your inner ear), explains Palmer. Because of this, all sound energy from the lowest to highest pitches runs past these hair cells—which makes them more likely to become “worn out” over time, she explains. The result: High-pitched buzzing in your ears and hearing loss.
“Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, there is no pill or procedure that will eliminate the perception of tinnitus and there is currently no treatment that is 100% effective,” says Palmer. That said, you can learn how to cope with the ringing in your ears with help from your doctor, counseling, and sound therapy (which can help distract your brain with other noises to make your tinnitus less noticeable).
2. Blame a head or neck injury.
Ahead or neck injury from a car crash, fall, or accident can become even more distressing when a buzzing in your ears emerges afterward, says Palmer. In this case, damage to your inner ear, hearing nerve, or the parts of your brain from a concussion could be what’s causing phantom noises in your head.
In particular, service members exposed to bomb blasts can develop tinnitus due to a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In fact, tinnitus is one of the most common service-related disabilities veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan come home with, per the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NICDC).
Unfortunately, tinnitus that’s linked to an injury is often louder and more burdensome, with a greater variety of sounds and frequencies, per the ATA. Again, though, coping tools can help make your tinnitus more manageable—so reach out to a doctor for help.
3. Your ears are plugged up.
Blockages like ear wax (or, in very rare cases, a tumor) could cause ringing in your ears due to pressure on the nerves that run through your ear canal. You might also start to experience tinnitus if your ears are so blocked up that you can’t hear outside sounds—which can cue a buzzing sensation in your ears, too, says Clark. The good news: Often, once the source of the pressure is removed and your ears are free to take in other noises again, your tinnitus goes away, says Clark.
4. Or you’re really congested.
Another potential cause of tinnitus is congestion due to severe cold, the flu, or a sinus infection. Pressure in your middle ear, as well as your nasal passages, could possibly fire up your nerves, which in turn could trigger a ringing sensation in your ears, explains Clark.
In this situation, the fix is typically straightforward: Reduce the pressure and your tinnitus symptoms should fade with it. If not, call a doctor to have your ears checked.
5. It could be a side effect of your medication.
A number of ototoxic medications can damage your ear structures by disrupting the delicate chemical balance of your inner ear or killing hair cells responsible for hearing, says Palmer. As a result, you might experience tinnitus as a side effect, along with hearing loss (often in both ears), dizziness, and balance issues.
Some common culprits include cisplatin (a type of chemotherapy), aminoglycoside antibiotics (IV drugs for serious infections), and loop diuretics (which are commonly used for patients experiencing heart failure), says Palmer. If you’re worried that your medication could be causing tinnitus, call your doctor or pharmacist to figure out the next steps (and don’t make any changes in your medication regimen before you do!).
6. Your jaw is acting up.
Got ringing in your ears, pain in your face and jaw, and weird popping sensations when you try to chew or talk? Damage to muscles, ligaments, or cartilage in your temporomandibular joint (a.k.a. TMJ) where your lower jaw connects to your skull in front of your ears can trigger tinnitus.
Jaw issues probably aren’t top of mind when you start hearing odd noises, but the nerves in your face responsible for biting and chewing are actually connected to structures in your ears. As such, a trip to an audiologist for tinnitus might end in a referral to a dentist or a head and neck specialist, says Clark. In many cases, getting your TMJ under control will help get rid of the ringing in your ears, per the ATA.
7. Your blood sugar levels are out of control.
When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin or use it properly in order to transfer glucose (blood sugar) into cells where it can be used for fuel. This puts you at risk of developing tinnitus and hearing loss alike because your inner ear relies on a steady supply of oxygen and glucose—which is disturbed by your condition, explains Clark. In this sense, tinnitus sort of serves as your body’s alarm system, letting you know that it’s not processing the glucose it needs to function, she says.
For diabetes-related tinnitus, it’s important to treat the cause as well as the symptom, so talk to your doctor about how you can better cope with both.
8. It’s simply a sign of aging.
Often, the same family member who needs the TV volume extra-loud is also dealing with frustrating noises in their ears. Unfortunately, tinnitus is one of the many wonders that come along with old age, and it may strike as early as your 40s, along with age-related hearing loss, says Clark.
In many cases, worsening, high-pitched tinnitus, and hearing loss are linked to damage from noise exposure over time and can hit suddenly or worsen gradually, per a 2016 study in Noise & Health. Again, treatment involves learning how to deal with tinnitus, not “cure” it, so talk to a doctor about what could help ease your symptoms. Sometimes, hearing aids can help improve your hearing and distract you from the buzzing in your ears.
9. You could have an inner ear disorder.
On its own, hearing a low-pitched roaring or whooshing sound in one ear can be distressing. Add to that random episode of dizziness and vertigo and a feeling of fullness in your ear (like it’s brimming with water), and you have every right to be concerned about what’s going on. In this case, you could have Ménière’s disease, a disorder characterized by hearing loss, tinnitus, and dizzy spells, says Palmer.
Ménière’s disease is believed to be caused by a fluid imbalance in your inner ear. While it is a chronic condition, dietary changes (like eating less salt and dialing down your caffeine and alcohol intake), medications, hearing aids, and other therapies can help you manage your symptoms.