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Hearing sound with no external source? This is a sign that you could have tinnitus. As many as one in two of us will experience tinnitus at least once in our lifetimes – usually it’s a buzzing, humming, whistling, or ringing in the ear – with one in five people developing chronic tinnitus.

Boots Hearingcare looks at some of the most important aspects of tinnitus, such as when it’s triggered and what can be done to help with ringing in the ear…

Overview:

In this section, you can find out what tinnitus is, what might cause it, and tips about how to live with tinnitus.  

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a phantom noise that doesn’t come from an external source. It develops in the inner ear and in the brain, but exactly how is still a mystery. The only thing we do know is that it’s not a condition in itself but a symptom of an underlying issue, such as age-related hearing loss, ear injury, or a circulatory system disorder.

The sounds that people with tinnitus hear are different for everybody – they can vary in pitch, volume, and tone. Sometimes it’s only heard in one ear, and some even say that they can ‘hear’ it in their head, rather than their ears. It can appear in phases, in waves, or it can be continuous. Tinnitus is frequently associated with hearing loss.
Friends walking on the beach

Is tinnitus harmful?

Keep in mind that not everyone who has tinnitus is badly affected by it. There are two main types:
  • Compensated tinnitus: Described by sufferers as not particularly intrusive. People with compensated tinnitus can usually block out the noises and are unaware of them most of the time.
  • Decompensated tinnitus: A person with decompensated tinnitus is constantly aware of it, hearing noises all the time, which can trigger insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression, and even social isolation. Also, it might set off headaches, earaches, and dizziness.
Tinnitus can have a similar profound effect upon a person’s mental health. If your brain hears a noise and thinks it might be threatening, it activates emotional reinforcement mechanisms in your limbic system, the part of your brain that processes emotions, which can prove distressing.

How long does tinnitus last?

A few days. A few months. A lifetime. It all depends on the severity. Tinnitus is split into three core categories:
  • Acute: Lasts for less than three months and often stops spontaneously. Sometimes medication can help.
  • Subacute: Usually recurs within three to 12 months. It can sometimes be treated with medication or relaxation techniques.
  • Chronic: Lasts persistently for more than 12 months. Rarely subsides without therapy or medication
If you’re experiencing ringing or unusual sensations in your ears, it may be worth seeing a doctor or specialist health professional for advice.

How do you get tinnitus?

Even if no one else can hear the noises and doctors can’t diagnose tinnitus, it isn’t a hallucination or an imaginary disorder. But we still don’t know how it develops or how to get rid of it for good. We do know one thing, though: the most common causes of tinnitus are injury, illness, or some other kind of change in the ear. Here are some different ways that tinnitus can develop:
  • In the inner ear: Tinnitus can develop in the inner ear following exposure to a sudden loud noise, or it can be linked to age-related hearing loss. These things can damage the sensory cells in the cochlea, resulting in some sounds only being faintly heard by the brain – or not heard at all. Hearing experts suspect that this makes the auditory response area in the brain try to ‘make up’ for the missing sounds, creating noise that isn’t there.
  • In the middle ear: Some forms of tinnitus can’t be measured externally. This makes it difficult for doctors to determine the trigger, which makes it even more difficult to treat. The cause of tinnitus could be in several different areas of the ear, in the nerves, or even in the brain. It could also be caused by a problem with the eardrum, or by inflammation somewhere in the ear.
  • In the brain: For some people, tinnitus could be caused by problem in the brain. This is very rare and often linked to a much more serious condition like meningitis or a brain tumour.
  • Objective tinnitus: Objective tinnitus is unusual: it means that the noises in the ear can actually be detected by a doctor. In these cases, it’s often a problem with blood vessels in the ear or damage to the middle ear. Objective tinnitus is usually a side effect of another disorder like Ménière’s disease, which affects the inner ear. This kind of tinnitus can be treated with medication or surgery.
If you suspect that you may have tinnitus, talk to your doctor or a local ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist), who can advise on next steps.

Common tinnitus triggers

Tinnitus can be triggered by a variety of causes, including:
Stress
Recent studies have shown that people with tinnitus have been under stress more often than other people with ear, nose, or throat problems. Tinnitus can be linked to long-term stress like work-related worries, or to larger one-off incidents such as a family bereavement.
Medication
Tinnitus could be a side effect of certain medication. Some antidepressants and malaria treatments may trigger it, as well as specific types of pain relief, rheumatism medication, and oral treatments for blood pressure.
Noise
Loud noise is the most common trigger for tinnitus. If you regularly spend time in a noisy environment, you’re at a much higher risk of developing the condition. Adequate hearing protection should be provided/considered in this instance. It can also be brought on by a sudden, very loud noise.
Stimulants
Some hearing experts believe that alcohol and nicotine are linked to tinnitus. As such, it may be a good idea to avoid such stimulants lest they exacerbate your symptoms.
Keeping a note of your personal tinnitus triggers will help greatly with managing the condition.
 

How to get help with tinnitus

Sudden ringing in the ear will usually disappear on its own. But what can you do if the noise just won’t go away?

If the ringing lasts longer than 24 hours, you should seek the advice of an expert. The earlier you do something about your tinnitus symptoms, the more treatable they are.

See your GP if you think you might have tinnitus. They can refer you to a specialist ear, nose and throat doctor for a confirmed diagnosis.

Who should I go to for help?

See your GP if you think you might have tinnitus. They can refer you to a specialist ear, nose and throat doctor.

Treatments for tinnitus

Currently, there is no cure for tinnitus, but there are ways of managing it. If you have tinnitus, you should keep in mind the following treatment options:
Medication
Acute tinnitus (tinnitus that lasts less than three months) can be treated with medication like cortisone, which stimulates circulation. For tinnitus that has been ongoing for longer than three months, more intensive treatments may be necessary.
Tinnitus retraining therapy
The most successful method to help people living with tinnitus is called tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). TRT aims to help you get to know your chronic tinnitus so that, over time, you’ll be able to start ignoring it. In other words, TRT helps your brain get used to the tinnitus so it no longer perceives it as strongly. TRT is best-suited to people who only hear slight or chronic noise.
Hearing aids and noisers
These can work in two ways: allowing you to hear better over the tinnitus noise or distracting you from the tinnitus noise with pleasant sounds. Around 80% of people affected by tinnitus also experience hearing loss – so a device that tackles both is a winner!

Tips for dealing with tinnitus

To help cope with the ringing in your ears caused by tinnitus, you could:
  • Reduce stress and find a relaxation technique that suits you (autogenic training, yoga, tai chi, etc.).
  • Stop smoking.
  • Watch what you eat and only consume alcohol in moderation.
  • Lead an active lifestyle and exercise. Physical activity helps distract you from the sounds in your ear.
  • Get enough sleep. Well-rested people perceive chronic tinnitus less intensely.
  • Always wear hearing protection when you are exposed to noise or loud music.
By making a few simple adjustments to your daily habits, you can jumpstart your way to a healthier, more bearable life with tinnitus.
 
Tinnitus is not something you have to put up with. Familiarise yourself with our information and advice to help keep symptoms at bay and manage your condition.

Don’t suffer in silence with tinnitus. Book your free hearing check with one of our experts at a Boots store near you…
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