Ringing in the Ears: Why It Happens and What You Can Do About It

Jun 19, 2023 | Primary Care

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Have you heard ringing in your ears, buzzing, whistling or other sounds that don’t come from an outside source? If so, you may be one of many people in the United States — estimates range from 10% to 25% of adults, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders — with tinnitus.

Capable of affecting both adults and children, tinnitus causes you to hear sounds that, in most cases, other people can’t hear. The most common of these sounds is ringing in the ears. In some cases, tinnitus can disrupt sleep or affect mental health. Fortunately, a variety of treatments are available to help quiet or tune out the noise. 

Two Types of Tinnitus

Nearly everyone experiences brief episodes of tinnitus occasionally, but ringing in the ears and other sounds can become problematic — and warrant speaking with your primary care provider (PCP) — if they happen frequently and last more than a few minutes.

Two types of tinnitus can affect people. If only you can hear the sounds in your ears, you have subjective tinnitus, which is the most common kind. Another type, known as objective tinnitus or pulsatile tinnitus, produces sounds in sync with your heartbeat. A medical provider may be able to hear them with a stethoscope. 

What Increases Your Risk for Ringing in the Ears?

Age-related hearing loss and exposure to loud noise, such as the sounds of heavy machinery on the job, can increase your risk for tinnitus. Other risk factors for tinnitus include:

  • Certain chronic health problems, including diabetes, thyroid disorders and some autoimmune conditions
  • Certain medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Earwax overproduction
  • Head injury
  • High blood pressure and other problems with the blood vessels
  • Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder
  • Middle ear infection

How to Find Relief from Ringing in the Ears

Tinnitus doesn’t have a cure, but for some people, it may get better or stop with time. If, however, you experience tinnitus for at least three months, known as chronic tinnitus, and it affects your quality of life, don’t resign yourself to living with it. Help is available, and the first step to finding a solution is telling your PCP.

Your PCP will check for blockages in your ears and ask about your medical history to learn about conditions that could be associated with tinnitus. He or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat physician) or audiologist to perform a hearing test or order an imaging test of your head.

To treat tinnitus, your PCP or specialist may recommend:

  • Attending cognitive behavioral therapy to help you reframe how you think about and respond to tinnitus and related stress
  • Completing tinnitus retraining therapy, which helps the brain learn to tune out tinnitus-related noise
  • Getting a hearing aid
  • Learning relaxation techniques to help you cope with tinnitus
  • Removing earwax or fluid from the ears
  • Taking medications to treat tinnitus-related complications, such as depression
  • Using a sound generator, a device that produces sounds, such as waves, that masks ringing in the ears and can help you sleep

Don’t let tinnitus throw your life out of tune. With help, you can push ringing in your ears into the background.

Tired of hearing a ringing that won’s go away? Connect with a primary care provider in your area.

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