“Someone’s thinking about you” may be the sly remark of a friend when you tell them your ears are ringing. And while that would certainly be a nice thought, that incessant buzzing, which affects more than 50 million people in America alone, according to the American Tinnitus Association, may be a symptom of an underlying condition.
What is tinnitus?
Called tinnitus, which is Latin for “ringing,” this condition involves a steady ringing, swishing, hissing, humming, roaring, beeping tone or tunes from one or both ears—like a message from inside your head trying to be heard. Some people experience it only occasionally, while others have it nearly all the time. In rare cases, some people report hearing music as a result of the condition.
The Hearing Health Foundation describes ringing in the ears as “the conscious experience of sound that originates in the head of its owner. It is hearing sound without an external, acoustic source.” But periods of brief, spontaneous tinnitus is much more common, the organization says.
Tinnitus can be acute (temporary) or chronic (ongoing). Temporary tinnitus is common after a concert or fireworks, as excessive noise can injure the ear, resulting in the ringing. The tinnitus typically clears up on its own within a few minutes to hours—or you can try these natural remedies for tinnitus. Chronic tinnitus, on the other hand, occurs regularly and lasts longer each time.
While this problem can occur for no apparent reason at all, some of the biggest culprits for tinnitus, according to Andrew Resnick, an audiologist at Resnick Audiology in New York, NY, are hearing loss as a result of aging, damage to the ear from repeated exposure to loud noise, wax or other blockage in the ear canal, and the use of certain medications.
How do you treat tinnitus?
A big concern for people who experience the condition—especially those who have it frequently—is whether it is something to seek medical attention over. “In the majority of cases, the presence of tinnitus does not indicate something to be overly concerned about,” says Resnick. “Of more concern is the sudden onset of tinnitus in only one ear, especially if accompanied by a sudden drop in hearing and/or vertigo, or the presence of pulsatile tinnitus.”
Because hearing loss often accompanies tinnitus, Resnick recommends seeing an audiologist to have your hearing tested. This will rule out any medical causes for the condition. “It is not unusual for tinnitus to be benign and of unknown cause, and yet be persistent,” says Resnick. “Persistent tinnitus often accompanies hearing loss, and many people find great relief from their tinnitus when using hearing aids.” (Here’s when it’s OK to buy an over-the-counter hearing aid.)
While tinnitus is common, especially among those who have worked in the music business, like music clubs, more rarely it can be linked with an overactive thyroid gland, or anemia, and can occur after a head injury. Furthermore, experiencing tinnitus in only one ear may, on rare occasion, be a sign of a tumor affecting the nerve between the ear and the brain.