Do you hear sounds that aren’t really there?

Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing noises in the head or the ears which have no external source.

It is often described as ringing in the ears but it can appear as almost any type of noise or mixture of noises. Some people even hear snatches of music. The noises can be constant, or they can come and go.

Who gets tinnitus?

About 10 per cent of adults in the UK have tinnitus. Of those, about one in 10 find it has a significant effect on their quality of life. It’s possible to experience tinnitus at any age, including in childhood, but it’s more common in older people and in people who have hearing loss.

Causes of tinnitus

The causes of tinnitus are still not fully understood but some of the more common causes associated with it are:

  • Hearing loss. The delicate hair cells in the inner ear may reduce in number due to wear and tear as people age. This gradual change can cause hearing loss which makes tinnitus more noticeable as it’s not masked by external sound.
  • Exposure to loud noise. Hair cells can be damaged by loud noise, which could generate tinnitus.
  • Stress and anxiety. It’s not always clear whether stress causes the onset of tinnitus. However, tinnitus may be more noticeable if you are anxious or stressed.
  • Ear infections. Middle ear infections can cause hearing loss and tinnitus. This is normally temporary but it is important to get treatment from your GP.
  • Ear wax build up. Depending on the individual, ear wax can build up over time and cause tinnitus. This should go away once the ear wax has been removed. Why not speak to your pharmacist in the first instance if you think this may be the case?

Tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease, but it is wise to see your doctor if you think you have it. Your GP will be able to refer you to specialist ear, nose and throat (ENT) and audiology services.

Treatment options

Sadly, many people believe that nothing can be done for tinnitus and that they just have to learn to live with it. Whilst it’s true that there is currently no cure for tinnitus, there are management tools and methods available to ensure that if you have tinnitus, you don’t have to suffer from it.

The British Tinnitus Association’s booklet, Living with Tinnitus, outlines five top techniques for learning to live well with tinnitus:

  • Information. You will probably feel better when you find out more about the condition, that it is very common, and that you’re not alone.
  • Correcting any hearing loss. If your tinnitus is accompanied by any hearing loss then trying to correct this loss with hearing aids is often very helpful.
  • Sound therapy. If the noises seem louder at quiet times, particularly during the night, it may help to have some environmental or natural sound from a CD, a sound generator, or even a fan or ticking clock in the background. Some people use in-ear sound generators.
  • Relaxation. Learning to relax is probably one of the most useful things you can do to help yourself. Those who practice relaxation techniques say they reduce the loudness of their tinnitus and help them become indifferent to it.
  • Counselling. Techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be helpful, either as a standalone therapy or combined with sound therapy.

Help and support

If you would like to find out more about tinnitus and how to manage it, call the British Tinnitus Association on 0800 018 0527 or visit the British Tinnitus Association website.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at