What tinnitus can sound like

Tinnitus can affect different people in different ways. Some people are only mildly affected while others are severely affected.

Some people with tinnitus are more sensitive to everyday sounds than others. For example, a person with tinnitus may find a radio or television painfully loud when it is at a normal volume for most people. This is known as hyperacusis.

If you have tinnitus, it may be more noticeable at certain times or in certain situations. For example, if you have mild tinnitus, you are more likely to notice it when you are in quiet places because noisy environments can mask the sounds.

Some cases of tinnitus may also be related to your posture. For example, you may experience sounds when you are lying or sitting down or when you turn your head. After these types of movements, pressure changes in your nerves, muscles or blood vessels may affect the noises associated with tinnitus.

Types of tinnitus

Most tinnitus is perceived as a high-pitched sound such as hissing, whistling or buzzing. There are, however, some other forms of tinnitus.

For some people, tinnitus can be a low-frequency noise, such as humming, murmuring, rumbling or deep droning. Other people with tinnitus experience musical hallucinations, where they repeatedly hear musical tunes or songs in their head.

These less common types of tinnitus are described in more detail below.

Low-frequency noise

People who constantly hear low-frequency noise often think it is coming from an external source rather than from inside their head or ears.

Sources of external low-frequency noise include:

  • road and air traffic noise  
  • underground gas pipes
  • home appliances, such as fans and fridges
  • air-conditioning units

The wind, sea and thunder are natural sources of low-frequency noise.

To determine where the noise that you can hear is coming from, ask other people whether they can hear it. If they can also hear the noise, it is unlikely that tinnitus is the cause.

If you can only hear the noise when you are in one place, it may be coming from an external source, whereas if you can hear it all the time, you may have tinnitus. Stress or a recent illness may be related to your symptoms.

Musical hallucinations

Musical hallucinations are more common among people with long-term tinnitus and hearing loss. However, sometimes they are also experienced by people who have normal hearing and those with an increased sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis).

As with other forms of tinnitus, there is sometimes no apparent reason for musical hallucinations. However, stress can sometimes be a trigger.

Pulsatile tinnitus

Pulsatile tinnitus is a type of tinnitus where you hear rhythmical noises that beat in time with your pulse. It is usually caused by either:

  • blood flow changes in the blood vessels near your ear
  • increased awareness of the blood flow near your ears

The blood flow through an artery can sometimes become restricted. This can be due to a build-up of fatty deposits (plaques) on the inside wall of the artery that cause the artery to narrow (atherosclerosis). The narrowed artery prevents the blood from flowing smoothly and causes it to become noisy.

If you have impaired hearing or a hearing condition, such as a perforated eardrum, your awareness of sounds that come from inside your body, such as your blood flow, may be increased. This is because your hearing becomes more sensitive and internal noises are not drowned out by external sounds.

Last updated: 07 March 2012

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