What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a condition where there is noise or ringing your ears even when you're in a quiet room. Rather than a disease itself, tinnitus is more of a symptom of other health issues, particularly of hearing impairment. If you are bothered by an unexplained buzzing in your ears, as it may be a sign of hearing loss or other serious health problems.

Noise such as ringing or roaring in the ear is called tinnitus. This problem may affect up to 50 million adults, according to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA). In fact, tinnitus is the third most common military related disability among veterans. At least 12 million Americans have tinnitus severe enough to seek medical attention.  Almost 12 percent of men who are 65 to 74 years of age are affected by tinnitus. Tinnitus is identified more frequently in white individuals and the prevalence of tinnitus is almost twice as frequent in the South as in the northern states.
Tinnitus may be ringing, roaring like a sea shell, or like that of steam escaping. It may last from several seconds to all of your waking hours. Tinnitus may have a pulsating component of the noise which is due to transmitted blood impulses within blood vessels in the ear. Continuous tinnitus may also have hearing loss or dizziness associated with it. It is important to realize that tinnitus is a common problem. Oftentimes it is an annoyance. Sometimes it is a sign of a more serious problem and needs medical evaluation and treatment.
A previous history of noise exposure with hearing loss is common along with tinnitus. Tinnitus is usually more troubling when other noise levels are low such as at bedtime. Sometimes using a radio or television at low levels will cover the annoying tinnitus and allow you to sleep.
David M. Vernick, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology)
Many people with hearing loss also have tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ear. This phrase is misleading, however, because some people hear ringing while others hear whistles or buzzing or almost any described sounds. Regardless of the particular sound, the distinguishing feature is that it doesn't have an external cause. People with tinnitus hear sounds that people around them don't hear. This isn't to say that tinnitus isn't real. Researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders have detected changes in brain activity that occur with tinnitus.

Nearly everyone has had tinnitus for a few seconds or minutes after hearing a very loud noise. For example, using a snowmobile or lawn mower or attending a loud concert might trigger tinnitus. But one in five people has tinnitus on more than just a temporary basis. It's especially common in people over age 55, affecting about one in three people in this age group. It can occur in one or both ears.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.