How to ease your tinnitus

You may be able to manage tinnitus by treating the cause or modifying your reaction to it.

Is a ringing sound in your ears bothering you? You’re not alone.

Some 50 million people in the U.S. experience some form of tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association.

Tinnitus is when you perceive sound that is not being made externally. Janet Davila, an ADC audiologist, says some people hear a ringing noise, but others hear buzzing, hissing, roaring, whistling or clicking.

She says there has been a lot of discussion about what tinnitus is and what causes it. But there are some things known to trigger or worsen tinnitus. They include:

  • Noise exposure – Power tools, weapons, music
  • Head and neck trauma
  • Tumors
  • Wax build up
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Certain medications

“Sometimes it is something that is serious. And sometimes it is not,” Davila said. “Sometimes it could be as simple as your Eustachian tube not working correctly. Sometimes it can be as serious as a tumor behind the eardrum. It varies in sound quality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean something really bad.”

Tinnitus does not cause hearing loss – rather, it can be a symptom. And not everyone who experiences tinnitus hears the same sound. The sound of this condition varies as much as the potential causes.

Watch the above video to find out what tinnitus sounds like.

Diagnosing tinnitus

If you think you have tinnitus, consider seeing a doctor to have the condition diagnosed.

But Davila says to take heart – it’s probably not as bad as you think.

“If tinnitus is bilateral (in both ears) and has a sudden onset, you should still see a doctor just to rule out anything serious,” she said. “Unilateral tinnitus (on one side) is more of a red flag, but I would still recommend anyone who develops tinnitus, whether it is unilateral or bilateral, to see a doctor about it.”

Davila says your reaction to the sound can determine how severe the sound is.

“You want to be careful what you tell someone so they don’t make a judgment about it and make it worse — just because they judged it as important,” she said.

Managing tinnitus

Tinnitus management illustration

Davila uses this drawing to illustrate how to lessen tinnitus.

There is no cure for tinnitus, but Davila says the condition can be managed. The key is teaching your brain to ignore the sound.

“What people will recommend a lot of times is to mask out the tinnitus to where you can’t hear it anymore… that’s kind of a misconception,” she said. “The best thing you can do is put on some kind of noise in the room like a fan or soft music to mute it a little. You don’t necessarily want to drown it out completely. If you drown it out completely, your brain cannot habituate to it. Usually we recommend that you turn on the noise to where you just barely hear the tinnitus.”

Here are some things that can help lesson your awareness of tinnitus:

Tips for managing tinnitus

  1. tinnitus illustration

    Davila’s tinnitus illustration

    Increase background noise.
    Mute the sound a little with a fan, music or other white noise, but not completely.

  2. Relax.
    Reduce stress, which can aggravate tinnitus.
  3. Watch out for triggers.
    Avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol.
  4. Get a proper amount of sleep.
  5. Avoid salt if it seems to trigger it.
  6. Use hearing instruments (if you have hearing loss) to mask out the sound.
  7. Preserve your hearing
    Protect your ears from further damage by avoiding loud noise or using earplugs

For about 10 million people in the US, tinnitus is significantly bothersome. Davila says there are specific therapies that can help.

“The best thing you can do for yourself if you have bothersome tinnitus is to see an ear nose and throat doctor to be sure it is nothing serious, then you can relax and start taking control over the tinnitus,” she said.

Davila says certain anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants can ease tinnitus – not because they affect the tinnitus itself, but because they slow down the central nervous system.

However, Davila warns that most medications cannot help.

“There’s all kinds of things out there that they say will help – don’t waste your money on them. They don’t help with tinnitus,” she said.