Dear F.C.: Ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, is a condition in which people hear constant or periodic sound not caused by an outside source. The sound can also be described as a ringing, buzzing, or clicking noise that occurs inside the head. Ringing in the ears can be heard in one or both ears, and in the head, and its pitch may be low or high.
Almost everyone has had a form of ringing in the ears where ringing is heard for several minutes, such as after a firecracker explodes. While this ringing usually goes away in a few minutes or a few hours, it may come back as persistent ringing in the ears years later. Of the 30 to 36 million Americans who have ringing in the ears, seven million cases are so severe that those affected have difficulty performing the activities of daily life. However, most cases of tinnitus are mild.
Tinnitus is usually a symptom of another physical or psychological problem. It can be a symptom of ear conditions, such as infections or foreign objects or wax in the ear, heart disease, chronic stress, or persistent allergies. Loud noises that contribute to tinnitus may be from a rock concert, a firecracker, a gunshot, a lawnmower, or an explosion. Additionally, it may represent a side effect from certain medicines (such as aspirin) or be a manifestation of excessive caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol intake.
Tinnitus is also linked to hearing loss, although not everyone who has tinnitus experiences a loss of hearing. The mechanism that causes tinnitus is not known. Younger people tend to have tinnitus as a result of exposure to loud noise. Older people who experience tinnitus often have a certain amount of hearing impairment related to the natural aging process. Currently, there is no cure for tinnitus.
Tinnitus is usually treated by addressing the underlying cause. Because it cannot be cured, treatments are offered to help the patient tolerate the noise. Because tinnitus may be the first sign of a serious illness (for example, a tumor or aneurysm), it is important to discover the underlying physical condition that may be causing it.