Why Are My Ears Ringing? Fast Facts About Tinnitus

Tinnitus is an audiological and neurological condition often called “ringing in the ears.” This article addresses the causes, types, and day-to-day challenges of living with tinnitus.

By Ability Central

13 June, 2024

A young Latina woman with short, wavy brown hair presses one hand to her ear while frowning in discomfort

If you’ve ever felt your ears ringing, you may have experienced tinnitus. Most commonly known as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus creates sounds that only you can hear, like hissing, clicking, humming, or pulsing. 

Around 15% of the world’s population has some form of tinnitus, including more than 50 million American adults. While tinnitus is not a disease, it is a symptom of other health concerns like age-related hearing loss or ear injuries. 

This article addresses your top questions about ear ringing, including:

  • What is tinnitus?
  • What causes ringing in the ears?
  • What are the types of tinnitus?
  • What other conditions can co-exist with tinnitus?
  • Can you get tinnitus in one ear?
  • What are the day-to-day communication challenges of living with tinnitus?
  • How can I find tinnitus relief?

 

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the sound of ringing in the ears. This sound may be described as:

  • Buzzing in ears
  • Roaring in one or both ears
  • Hissing sound
  • Clicking inside the head
  • High-pitched ringing in ears

A person may experience tinnitus in one ear or both. It may cause constant ringing in the ears, or the feeling of ears ringing may come and go. While tinnitus is most common in people ages 40 to 80, anyone can experience the condition. 

 

What causes ringing in the ears?

Tinnitus is usually related to some other health issue, meaning it can go away after treating the underlying condition. Tinnitus can also be temporary, like the ringing in your ears after a concert or a loud, unexpected noise. In some cases, however, tinnitus symptoms can be permanent. 

Causes of ringing ears include:

  • Age. About 1 in 3 adults over age 65 develop ringing in their ears.
  • Noise. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can occur from one loud noise or a continuously loud environment.
  • Ear injuries that affect the nerves.
  • Ear conditions, like earwax buildup or ear infections.
  • Medications, like antibiotics, antidepressants, cancer drugs, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

 

What are the types of tinnitus?

There are four types of tinnitus.

  • Neurological tinnitus impacts the brain’s auditory capabilities in diseases like Meniere’s disease, a condition that affects the middle ear and leads to light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, hearing, and buzzing or ringing noises only you can hear.
  • Objective tinnitus causes ear ringing that can be heard by other people, including the audiologist, during an exam. Objective tinnitus is very rare and is usually caused by issues with muscles or blood vessels in the ear.
  • Somatic tinnitus is linked to the sensory system and is usually triggered by muscle spasms in the neck and jaw. Dental issues like impacted wisdom teeth or a recent tooth extraction can cause somatic tinnitus. Other causes include inflammation, head and neck injuries, and poor posture. 
  • Subjective tinnitus is the most common type of tinnitus. Someone with subjective tinnitus experiences ringing in one or both ears that does not come from an outside source. Subjective tinnitus may be the result of working in a noisy environment or exposure to a painfully loud sound. Most cases of subjective tinnitus go away a few hours after you leave the noisy environment, but some can last for 12 months or more. If your tinnitus symptoms last longer than a few hours, speak to an audiologist. 

To learn more about the symptoms of each kind of tinnitus, see What Are the Symptoms of Tinnitus?

 

What other conditions can co-exist with tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom. Ringing in your ears can be a side effect of other illnesses and conditions, including:

  • Thyroid disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Lyme disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Jaw misalignment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes

Frequent or long-lasting ringing in the ears may be a sign of something else going on, so be sure to schedule an appointment with your family doctor, primary care physician, or audiologist to find out more.

 

Can you get tinnitus in one ear?

Yes. Ringing in one ear only is called unilateral tinnitus. It is less common than bilateral tinnitus, or ringing in both ears.

Unilateral tinnitus may be caused by something as minor as earwax buildup, but it may be a sign of a serious issue. Your doctor may recommend a physical exam, hearing test, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to help diagnose the problem.

To find an audiologist or ear doctor in your area, see Ability Central’s nonprofit database. The Service Locator tool connects you with nonprofits in your area that offer services related to hearing. 

An organization near you can guide you through the diagnostic process or help you find additional tinnitus resources. Check out the Service Locator tool here.

 

What are the day-to-day communication challenges of living with tinnitus?

According to one study, speech comprehension is challenging for about 74% of people with chronic tinnitus. If ringing in the ears worsens, some people with tinnitus may prefer to communicate via text or email rather than through phone calls. 

Chronic tinnitus can make it difficult to:

  • Sleep
  • Concentrate
  • Drive
  • Understand what people say
  • Follow directions
  • Navigate emergency situations
  • Relax

Plus, tinnitus is an invisible disability, which means it can be difficult to explain to strangers or family members who have not experienced constant ringing in the ears. 

Many people with ongoing tinnitus struggle with feelings of frustration, overwhelm, or annoyance when their tinnitus interferes with daily life, or when someone doesn’t take their tinnitus seriously. 

Modern technology, like the accessibility features available on most smartphones, has made it easier to deal with ongoing tinnitus. Instant messaging, text, and email can improve comprehension for employees with tinnitus, while real-time captions for phone calls, TV shows, or conversations can help people with tinnitus feel connected and understood. 

Check out Ability Central’s database of phones, tablets, and other devices that offer tinnitus-friendly features. 

 

How can I find tinnitus relief?

Many people with tinnitus report that certain triggers make the ringing in their ears worse. Identifying your triggers can help you plan for any communication challenges you might experience. A good way to do this is by avoiding possible triggers one at a time and writing down your results. 

Lifestyle-related triggers might include:

  • Smoking
  • Caffeinated drinks like soda, coffee, tea, and energy drinks
  • Alcohol 
  • Aspirin
  • Salt
  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • Lack of exercise 

 

Some people with tinnitus find relief through:

  • Relaxation methods, like yoga, Tai-chi, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or self-hypnosis.
  • Adding soothing sounds to the environment, like playing soft music or turning on a fan.
  • Exercising three to five times a week to boost your mood, lower stress, improve your sleep, and fight depression.
  • Ear plugs, noise-cancelling headphones, or earmuffs. 
  • Support groups for people who understand what it’s like to live with tinnitus. To learn more about tinnitus support groups, see Chronic Tinnitus and Long-term Care.

 

Where can I get more information about tinnitus?

To learn more about tinnitus, see:

 

To learn more about other hearing and processing-related conditions, see:

Article Type:
Learning