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Ringing in the new year? It could be tinnitus

If you're kicking off 2022 with a ringing, buzzing, clicking, hissing, whistling or swooshing sound in your ears, it could be tinnitus.

You're not alone. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 50 million Americans experience some form of tinnitus. But just because it's common doesn't make it any less annoying.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the perception of sound in one or both ears when no actual external sound is present. In other words, you can hear it but no one else can.

Tinnitus is not a disease. Rather, it is a symptom that something is amiss with your auditory system, which includes your ear, the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, and the parts of the brain that process sound. 

While the most common form of tinnitus is a steady, high-pitched ringing, the noises can vary. In rare cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music. But for people dealing with tinnitus, it's anything but music to the ears. 

Tinnitus can be temporary (acute) or continuous (chronic), mild to severe, gradual or instant. For most, the condition is simply an annoyance and is rarely medically serious. For others, it can interrupt sleep, interfere with daily living and lead to serious physical and mental health issues.

What causes tinnitus?

There are several things that can cause tinnitus. The most prevalent reason for tinnitus is hearing loss caused by changes in the inner ear and auditory nerve. 

  • Age-related hearing loss. Tinnitus is more prevalent the older you get. It's most common among the 60-69 year old crowd. 
  • Noise-induced hearing loss. Exposure to loud noises—either a single event or exposure over time—can damage the auditory system and lead to hearing loss. High-risk groups include military personnel and veterans, people employed in loud workplace environments like construction, manufacturing, agriculture and transportation, musicians and live-music fans, and motorsports and hunting enthusiasts.

If you have any signs of hearing loss, you should get tested by a qualified health care provider. Check the CDC's list of signs and symptoms

A variety of other conditions and illness can also lead to tinnitus, including:

  • Middle ear obstructions, including excessive ear wax, head congestion, loose hair in the ear canal, or dirt or foreign objects.
  • High blood pressure. Conditions that cause blood flow changes can cause tinnitus or worsen symptoms.
  • Meniere's disease, an inner ear disorder that causes episodes of vertigo.
  • Cold and sinus problems that create abnormal pressure in the middle ear.
  • Head and neck injuries. Issues with blood flow, nerves or muscles can lead to hearing changes.
  • Diabetes. Improper blood flow and elevated sugar levels can contribute to tinnitus symptoms.
  • Hormone changes, such as PMS, menopause and pregnancy.
  • Medication side effects. Tinnitus is a potential side effect of several prescription medications. In these cases, tinnitus is temporary and will go away when the medication is discontinued. Always speak with your medical provider before you stop taking any medications.

Can tinnitus cause other health problems?

In severe cases, tinnitus can have side effects that could lead to serious health issues, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety and irritability

How can I relieve my tinnitus symptoms?

If tinnitus persists, there are some options that may improve your symptoms. 

  • Hearing aids. If your tinnitus is caused by noise-induced or age-related hearing loss, hearing aids may reduce your symptoms.
  • Sound-masking devices. Fans, white noise machines, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditions in the bedroom produce white noise and may help make tinnitus less noticeable.
  • Relaxation techniques. Stress can worsen tinnitus. Many have found relief through deep breathing, exercise and biofeedback.

A medical provider will help you determine the treatment or combination of treatments that work best for you.  

Tinnitus breathing exercise graphic

How can I prevent tinnitus?

Often, tinnitus is caused by something that can't be prevented. But there are some steps you can take to prevent some forms of the condition:

  • Use hearing protection. If possible, limit your exposure to loud sounds. If you can't, wear ear plugs of over-the-ear hearing protection. 
  • Turn down the beat. Amplified music through headphones can cause hearing loss and tinnitus.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle. Exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and take other steps to prevent tinnitus linked to high blood pressure and other conditions.
  • Limit stimulants to the nervous system, including caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

How is tinnitus treated?

Unfortunately, there isn't a cure for tinnitus. But there are ways to reduce your symptoms by treating the underlying cause.

See your doctor or visit your nearby Indigo Health to find out if there's a link to other health issues. Our friendly providers will give you a general physical exam, which includes careful examination of your ears. 

If the cause of your tinnitus is a build-up of earwax, your doctor will clean out your ears by suction with a small instrument called a curette, or gently flush it out with warm water. If you have an ear infection, you may be given prescriptions to help relieve the itching and fight the infection.

If your Indigo provider suspects something more complex is going on, you'll be referred to a higher level of care.

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