What is tinnitus?

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

Usually, only the person experiencing the tinnitus 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 minutes at a time. About 12 million people have constant or recurring tinnitus that interferes with their daily life so much that they seek professional treatment. For these individuals, tinnitus may result in a loss of sleep, interfere with concentration, and create negative emotional reactions such as despair, frustration, and depression.

People of any age can suffer from tinnitus, although it does not typically occur in children. Children with tinnitus should be evaluated for hearing loss or other underlying cause.

What causes tinnitus?

Although tinnitus often has no specific cause, the most common identifiable causes of tinnitus include the following:

Your doctor will try to determine what is causing the condition. If it is not due to a medication side effect or a general medical condition (such as high blood pressure), he or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) or an audiologist (hearing specialist). It is especially important to see an otolaryngologist if you experience tinnitus in only one ear, tinnitus that sounds like your heartbeat or pulse (pulsatile tinnitus), tinnitus with sudden or fluctuating hearing loss, pressure or fullness in one or both ears, and/or dizziness or balance problems. Unless the cause of the tinnitus is obvious on physical examination, a hearing test is usually required.