What is this ringing noise in my ears?

August 17, 2011 Brenna Carroll

side-view portrait of a man holding his ear


In this article:

  • Tinnitus, commonly referred to as ringing in the ears, affects up to 50 million people in the U.S.

  • The exact causes are unknown and there is no known cure.

  • A Swedish audiologist says coping strategies can help, including managing stress and refocusing attention.

Tinnitus (pronounced TIN-it-us or tin-NIGHT-us) is the perception of a sound or noise in the ear or head. Statistics obtained by the American Tinnitus Association indicate that up to 50 million people in the United States experience tinnitus.

Tinnitus is commonly reported as a ringing or bell noise, but it has also been described as clicking, roaring, hissing, static and “motor” noises. Tinnitus has unique variations, and reports from those afflicted with tinnitus vary greatly in terms of sound and volume. Most people experience tinnitus in both ears, though it may occasionally be perceived in one ear only. Medical evaluation should be sought if tinnitus is present in just one ear only as it may be a symptom of other medical conditions.

The exact causes of tinnitus are unknown. Tinnitus has been associated with many conditions and factors, including but not limited to hearing loss, noise exposure, ear wax impaction, side effects of medications, fatigue, stress, vascular abnormalities and ear and head/neck traumas. Tinnitus is unique. Factors that may contribute to tinnitus in one individual may not influence tinnitus in another.

Though it is the subject of extensive research, there is currently no known cure for tinnitus. The nature of tinnitus is unpredictable. For some it may spontaneously resolve over time. Others learn to live with tinnitus as a chronic condition. Coping strategies are recommended to manage tinnitus symptoms. Some of these include:

  • Refocus attention. Concentrating on the sound of the tinnitus can make it more noticeable. Engaging in activities and tasks that require attention can divert focus away from the tinnitus. Watching a favorite television program, reading an interesting story and pursuing hobbies can provide activities to refocus attention.
  • Wear hearing aids if appropriate for your hearing. While hearing aids do not cure or prevent tinnitus, reports indicate that appropriately fit amplification can sometimes mask the sound of tinnitus when worn.
  • Noise masking devices are available to disguise the sound of tinnitus. Some devices are specifically designed for tinnitus while others provide soothing environmental noises to mask the sound. A radio played at a low volume can also provide masking noise. Some people find these options helpful if tinnitus is interfering with the ability to fall asleep.
  • Practice hearing conservation, particularly when operating machinery and power tools and while attending concerts. Loud noise has been associated with tinnitus.
  • Manage stress. Tinnitus may be more prevalent during periods of stress. Consider breathing exercises, yoga or taking a walk to relax.
  • Get adequate sleep at night. Fatigue has been associated with increased tinnitus.

While tinnitus is not necessarily a sign of a major problem, getting a hearing test when it occurs is recommended because it can be a sign of a change in hearing.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about tinnitus, contact Swedish Audiology Services. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

American Tinnitus Association

American Speech-Language and Hearing Association — Tinnitus

American Academy of Audiology — Tinnitus

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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