Tinnitus

Introduction

Tinnitus is the medical name for the perception of noise in one ear, both ears or the head. The noise comes from inside the body rather than an outside source.

People with tinnitus can experience different types of sound. Most people describe it as a ringing sound but other sounds may include:

  • buzzing
  • humming
  • whistling
  • music

Sometimes, the noise associated with tinnitus beats in time with a person’s pulse. This is known as pulsatile tinnitus.

Read more about the different sounds of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is often worse at quiet times, such as when you are trying to get to sleep. This is because there is less background noise to distract you from the sounds of tinnitus. The sound may also be more noticeable when you are tired.

Tinnitus is a symptom rather than a condition itself. The sounds are usually only heard by the person who has tinnitus, although in a few rare cases, they can also be heard by other people.

Temporary tinnitus can be caused by a cold, a blow to the head, or prolonged exposure to a loud noise, such as a music concert.

Read more about the causes of tinnitus.

Treating tinnitus

The treatment for tinnitus will depend on the underlying cause.

For example, for tinnitus that is caused by a build-up of earwax, eardrops or ear irrigation may be recommended. Irrigation involves using a pressurised flow of water to remove the earwax.

However, in many cases of tinnitus, there is no cure and treatment aims to manage the symptom on a daily basis.

Read more about treating tinnitus.

How common is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a common condition. Approximately 1 in 10 people in the UK have some awareness of tinnitus. However, only 1 in 200 people are severely affected by it.

People of all ages can have tinnitus, including young children, but it is more common in older people.

Outlook

Most people learn to live with tinnitus but it can have a significant effect on daily life. For example, it can affect concentration and cause sleeping problems and depression.

There is currently no cure for long-term tinnitus. Therefore, the aim of treatments, such as sound therapy, relaxation therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), is to help people manage their symptoms effectively.

Read more about the treatments for tinnitus.

Last updated: 07 March 2012

Continue to next section: What tinnitus can sound like