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What is tinnitus?

Acúfenos en el oído

Tinnitus, or “ringing of the ears”, is the sensation of hearing sounds (usually ringing, buzzing, hissing, chirping or whistling) in one or both ears. Such noise fills the ears yet is not caused by external sounds, and thus other people can’t hear it. 

Tinnitus is not itself a disease, but a symptom of several medical conditions. It is very common and most people experience it at some point in their lives. 

Typically, tinnitus is little more than an annoyance, yet in severe cases it can cause difficulty concentrating and sleeping. Depending on its causes, healthcare providers may help manage its impact. 

Causes

Tinnitus has been linked to over 200 different health conditions, and the exact cause is often never found. However, it is thought that in up to 90% of instances it is accompanied by general hearing loss. 

There are tiny and sensitive hair cells in the inner ear that move when they receive sound waves. They trigger electrical signals along the auditory nerve to the brain, which then interprets these signals as sound. When these delicate hair cells become damaged – most commonly due to age or exposure to loud sounds – they can produce a constant thread of undesired electrical signals that the brain interprets and manifests as tinnitus.

The most common causes of tinnitus include:

  • Exposure to loud sounds (either prolonged over time or from a single extremely loud incident).
  • Aging. 
  • Blockages (including wax build-up, foreign object or ear infection) 
  • Medications (certain antibiotics, aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, cancer drugs, diuretics, quinine medications and antidepressants).
  • Head or neck injuries.
  • Anxiety or depression.
  • Meniere’s disease.
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).
  • Otosclerosis.
  • Eustachian tube dysfunction.
  • Vestibular schwannoma (acoustic neuroma).
  • Other medical conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, circulatory problems, anemia, allergies, thyroid disorders, autoimmune disease, and diabetes.

Prevention

Risk factors that may be mitigated include:

  • Avoid loud noises whenever possible, especially prolonged exposure to them. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends maintaining environmental noises below 70 dBA over 24-hours, and 75 dBA over 8-hours. 
  • Turn the volume down. The volume of headphones should be kept at or below 60%. 
  • Avoid excessive consumption of aspirin, antibiotics, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
  • Take care of your cardiovascular health via regular exercise and a balanced diet. 

Treatment

See a doctor if you suffer tinnitus on a regular basis, it is getting worse, or it is really bothering you.

Sometimes, tinnitus goes away spontaneously, without intervention. It is important to note that tinnitus can’t always be eliminated or reduced, no matter the cause.

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, and may include earwax removal, employing hearing aids, or a change to a patient’s medications.

When tinnitus can’t be cured a doctor may recommend noise suppression. Fans, white noise machines, or masking devices similar to hearing aids, may help make the symptoms less noticeable. 

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