Do you have persistent ringing in the ears? Doctors call this sound tinnitus, and it isn't always ringing. Tinnitus can sound like any number of annoying tones, including ringing, buzzing, hissing or whizzing. It can be loud, soft, or any volume in between, and the sound can range from a low-pitched roar to a high-pitched squeal. It may occur nearly constantly or come and go.
What does tinnitus sound like?
"My ears are ringing." That's the standard way most people describe tinnitus, but in reality there can be a lot of variation.
Common descriptions include hearing cicadas, wind, crickets, fluorescent lights, squeals, running engines, grinding steel or dripping tap water. Some people even say it sounds like a motorboat or car engine in their ears.
It's important to know that tinnitus is a symptom itself—it's linked to many different medical conditions, and even some medications can trigger it. It's also strongly linked to hearing loss and loud noise exposure.
However, whenever a medical cause can't be uncovered, tinnitus can be considered a chronic disease in and of itself. In most cases, there is no known cure, though treatments and related alternative relief strategies can help.
When ear ringing never goes away
Occasional bouts of brief noise that lasts a few seconds is considered "transient" and something most people experience from time to time. A diagnosis of chronic tinnitus usually means a person reports episodes of tinnitus that last for at least five minutes and occur at least twice a week. You may also experience tinnitus spikes.
It's possible to have tinnitus in just one or both ears, and it can come and go. Tinnitus can get loud enough to interfere with concentration, and sometimes, it can mask natural sounds. Tinnitus is most commonly experienced by adults, especially those who have hearing loss.
In a 2016 survey of American adults with tinnitus, nearly a third reported having symptoms nearly constantly. About the same number of people noticed tinnitus at bedtime.
Note: If you experience tinnitus and sudden hearing loss, seek prompt treatment.
When movement triggers tinnitus
If you have tinnitus and the sound changes in some way when you tense, manipulate, or apply pressure to the muscles in your face, head, jaw, or neck then you likely have somatic tinnitus.
When noise triggers tinnitus
If you notice that noises in your environment seem to trigger your tinnitus, then you may have reactive tinnitus. Reactive tinnitus is triggered by average, everyday sounds at almost any volume.
Pulsatile tinnitus - hearing your heartbeat
Do you feel like you can hear your pulse or the blood rushing through your head? This is known as pulsatile tinnitus, and it should be evaluated by a medical profession promptly, as some cases of pulsatile tinnitus are linked to serious conditions like cancer, stroke or aneurysm. Less serious causes include vitamin deficiency and anemia.
The emotional symptoms of tinnitus
Having a constant ringing in your ears is not pleasant, and you may have trouble falling asleep or concentrating at work. The constant annoyance, lack of sleep and inability to live your life as you used to may even cause increased anxiety. Anxiety is especially common if tinnitus is getting in the way of work or causing other stressful situations. Many people who have tinnitus often describe a connection between tinnitus perception and stress. You may even suffer from depression or thoughts of suicide in response to the persistent buzzing or ringing that feels inescapable. Along with treatments, behavioral strategies can make tinnitus more manageable.
Track your tinnitus symptoms
Having a good grasp of the tinnitus sounds you hear, when you hear them and how often you hear them may be able to help your hearing care professional or physician determine the best way to treat your tinnitus. Keeping a symptom diary for a few weeks is a good idea.
A tinnitus evaluation from a hearing healthcare practitioner will begin with a series of questions designed to get a clear description of your symptoms such as:
Get help from an expert
Find a hearing professional near you by going to our directory of hearing care providers. Please note that not all hearing clinics treat tinnitus, so you may need to browse several clinic pages to find the right provider.
Before your first appointment, take note of your specific symptoms, when they occur and what environments make them better or worse. This work ahead of time will prepare you for the first questions asked by the practitioner and ensure you get the most out of your evaluation.