What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a condition in which you hear sounds when there is no outside source of the sounds. The sounds can have many different qualities (ringing, clicking, buzzing, roaring, whistling or hissing) and can be perceived as soft or loud.

Usually, the person experiencing the tinnitus is the only one who can hear the sounds. Tinnitus can occur either with or without hearing loss, and can be perceived in one or both ears or in the head.

Approximately 50 million Americans have some form of tinnitus. For most people, the sensation usually lasts only a few seconds or up to a few minutes at a time. For others about 12 million people, the tinnitus is constant or recurs and interferes with their daily life so much that they seek professional treatment. For these individuals, tinnitus may result in a loss of sleep, difficulty with concentration or reading, and can create negative emotional reactions such as despair, frustration and depression.

People of any age can suffer from tinnitus, although it not as common in children. Everyone who has bothersome tinnitus should have it evaluated by a healthcare provider such as an otolaryngologist and audiologist.

What causes tinnitus?

Although the exact cause of tinnitus is unknown, the most common identifiable causes of tinnitus include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Exposure to loud noises
  • Head injury
  • Medication side effects
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Wax buildup in the ear canal
  • Fluid buildup behind the eardrum
  • Problems of the heart, blood vessels, neck, jaw or teeth

It is important to have your tinnitus evaluated by a medical professional to rule out a medical cause for it. It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) if you experience:

  • Tinnitus in only one ear
  • Tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or is pulsating (pulsatile tinnitus)
  • Tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss
  • Pressure or fullness in one or both ears
  • Dizziness or balance problems accompanying tinnitus

Otherwise, see an audiologist for a hearing test and to begin a discussion about your tinnitus.

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