Have you ever experienced a buzzing or ringing in your ears, maybe during a bad cold, or after a concert? Sometimes, that experience becomes persistent. If this sounds familiar, you may be one of the many people in the UK living with tinnitus. This quick guide will help you recognise, understand and manage tinnitus.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is the experience of hearing sounds in the ear/s or head with no external source. These sounds are usually described as ringing, hissing, buzzing, humming or roaring.

In rarer cases, tinnitus can even sound like fragments of songs. This is known as ‘musical hallucination,’ but it is important to know that tinnitus is not a mental health condition or an illness; it is actually usually a sign that something’s not quite right with the hearing system.

Most cases of tinnitus are hardly noticeable, or may be a slight annoyance, but won’t cause any disruption to daily life.

In some cases, however, tinnitus can be severe. This can lead to:

  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Hearing loss
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety

These cases can be especially troubling if the person already experiences one or more of the above problems, or other conditions that make them sensitive to over-stimulation, such as autism.

Who gets tinnitus?

According to the British Tinnitus Association, around 30% of the population will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives, and for around 10% it will be fairly persistent.

Tinnitus is more likely to appear in older people and those who already have hearing loss or other ear conditions. Other factors linked to tinnitus include:

  • Excessive stress
  • Anxiety or depression (notice how these can also be made worse by tinnitus!)
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Exposure to excessive noise

However, tinnitus is very common, affecting all age groups and people with no pre-existing ear troubles. That’s why its important for all adults to be aware of the signs of tinnitus, and to look out for it in children.

What causes tinnitus?

So far, the exact cause of tinnitus is unknown. However, we do know that its related to mental and/or physical changes in brain activity.

Our ears pick up so many sounds during our daily lives, often several at once- we can’t possibly process them all! So our brains filter through the signals sent by our ears, making some of the sounds ‘background noise’ only.

If the amount of signals being sent to the brain for filtering changes (for example, because of a blockage or infection), the brain sometimes responds to this change by trying to get more information from the ear. In other words, the brain ‘invents’ sounds to fill the gaps, leading to the sense of hearing noises with no external source- tinnitus.

I think I have tinnitus- what should I do?

Experiencing sounds in your ears, or a child telling you that they can hear things that aren’t there, can seem very worrying. Fortunately, tinnitus is rarely a sign of serious illness, and there are many ways to manage it.

If you think you or your child may have tinnitus, the first thing to do is contact your GP. You may then be referred to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist to rule out any medical factors, assess your hearing and advise you on how to manage tinnitus.

The NHS strongly recommends that you book an urgent GP appointment if your tinnitus follows a head injury, seems to beat in time with your pulse, and/or comes with sudden hearing loss, vertigo or weakness of the facial muscles.

In most cases, tinnitus settles down on its own, becoming just another ‘background noise’ that is no longer noticeable. If you find tinnitus is persistently affecting your life and well-being, don’t despair. There are many ways to manage tinnitus, including sleep therapy, yoga, and stress management. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

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