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What causes tinnitus?

A number of factors and illnesses are known to cause tinnitus

There are a variety of causes of tinnitus, from environmental factors to infections and health conditions. Our tinnitus advisor, Helen Cosgrove, explains the different potential causes of tinnitus, both common and uncommon.

An introduction to tinnitus causes

Tinnitus is a condition that leads to noises being heard in one or both ears. It can affect people of all ages and may be caused by a number of factors.

Listening to loud music at rock concerts or night clubs, working in a noisy environment and loss of hearing have all been known to cause tinnitus. The condition can affect people who otherwise have no other ear problems.

For most people suffering from tinnitus, there is no known cause of their symptoms. Tinnitus affects approximately 10% of the population and is a persistent problem in about 5% of adults.

Tinnitus can appear suddenly or it may develop gradually. It is not a medical condition in itself but tends to come about as a result of some other mental or physical change which may or may not be related to your hearing.

What causes tinnitus?

The precise mechanism or reason why we are able to hear sounds in our ears without an external source being present is not fully understood.

However, it is believed to be the result of a disturbance in the way that nerves work to send signals between the ear and the brain. This is particularly noticeable after a physical change to the ears, such as with an ear infection or continuous exposure to loud sounds.

Most people experiencing tinnitus will not have an identifiable cause but this does not mean that it is not worth an attempt at investigation. If a root cause can be found, the chances of finding effective relief will be much better.

Common causes of tinnitus

These include:

  • Stress – although stress doesn’t directly cause tinnitus, it has been shown to worsen symptoms. Reducing stress levels will ease that constant humming in your ears, as well as benefit other aspects of your health
  • Hearing loss – this is sometimes accompanied by tinnitus, probably because the normal external noises diminish
  • Ear wax – any disorder on the outside of the ear drum can give rise to tinnitus but is usually easily treated
  • Ear infection – bacterial infection behind the ear drum usually responds well to antibiotics.  A viral infection of the inner ear can also lead to tinnitus and dizziness, and usually resolves without treatment
  • Glue ear – this is most commonly found in young children and is a complication of an ear infection, usually after a bout of the cold or flu. Instead of air, the ear fills with a glue-like substance giving rise to tinnitus
  • Meniere’s disease – this condition affects about 1 in 1,000 people, and is characterised by dizziness, nausea, hearing loss and tinnitus
  • Loud noises – this both causes and worsens tinnitus, so reducing your exposure to loud noises (such as when clubbing or with earphones) is important
  • High blood pressure – this, on occasion, can give rise to tinnitus as a continuous sound or pulsatile tinnitus
  • Medication – certain types of medicines including diuretics, chemotherapy and certain antibiotics may cause tinnitus as a side effect. Consult your doctor or pharmacist for alternatives

Less common causes of tinnitus

  • Benign tumours (acoustic neuroma) – this is a rare tumour giving rise to symptoms including hearing loss, dizziness and tinnitus
  • Central nervous system disorders – these rare causes of tinnitus include epilepsy, concussion and abnormal growth of blood vessels called vascular malformations
  • Allergies, heart murmurs or anaemia may also, rarely, result in tinnitus.

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