If you've ever experienced ringing in your ears, there's a strong chance you've Googled one question: do I have tinnitus? The symptom affects about 30 per cent of people at least once in their lives, the British Tinnitus Foundation says, so it's more common than you might expect. Hearing phantom sounds, and not sure what to do next? Here's what you need to know about tinnitus, and what you can do about it.
The NHS defines tinnitus as "hearing noises that aren't caused by an outside source" — and that noise doesn't have to be ringing. People with tinnitus might also hear music, singing, hissing, humming, throbbing, buzzing, or whooshing, the NHS advises. The sound might feel as though it's in your head, or in one or both ears, and it can be consistent or intermittent. In short, there's no single way to experience tinnitus.
According to the British Tinnitus Foundation, the potential causes of the symptom (it's not a condition in itself, the foundation stresses) are equally varied. While there's no definitive cause, the ringing (or humming, or buzzing) can be triggered by exposure to loud noise, ear infections, stress or anxiety, inner ear disorder Ménière's disease, a perforated eardrum, glue ear or a build up of ear wax, otosclerosis, or hearing loss. Certain medications can also trigger tinnitus, the NHS notes, as can depression, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.
Your first step, the NHS says, should be making an appointment with your doctor, who'll examine your ears and determine whether there's a treatable condition causing your tinnitus. If the cause is an ear infection, for instance, you might find treating the infection silences the ringing. If not, the British Tinnitus Foundation says, you could be referred to a tinnitus clinic.
So what if the tinnitus doesn't clear up after your doctor's appointment? While there's no direct cure, there are methods of managing tinnitus, and reducing its impact on your life. The NHS recommends stress-minimising activities like deep breathing and yoga, as well as taking steps to improve your sleep.
The British Tinnitus Foundation estimates about 10% of people experience persistent tinnitus, and for a further tenth of those, the symptom affects their quality of life. Joining a support group, therefore, could be beneficial, particularly if you're feeling isolated or are struggling to deal with your tinnitus. Counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy could also help you to cope, the NHS says.
You might also find sound therapy, or noise suppression, useful. The Mayo Clinic notes that white noise machines can help mask the phantom sounds you hear, while hearing aid-like masking devices can also minimise the noise. Alternatively, your doctor or specialist might recommend tinnitus retraining, which combines counselling with an in-ear device. The device will play specifically programmed sounds that mask your tinnitus, with the aim of reducing your focus on the symptom.
Lastly, the Mayo Clinic recommends lifestyle adjustments that can minimise your tinnitus. Try avoiding loud noises (watch the volume on those headphones!), alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, all of which can exacerbate the ringing. And crucially, if your tinnitus is impeding your quality of life, impacting your mood, or causing you anxiety, don't hesitate to speak to your doctor to access some support.