What is tinnitus and how can it affect your health?

Plus, treatments to alleviate tinnitus symptoms.

Woman experiencing tinnitus
(Image credit: Getty Images)

According to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 15% of the American population (over 50 million people) experience some form of tinnitus. 

Tinnitus, which is commonly known as "ringing in the ears", is very common and not usually a sign of something serious. However, if you are experiencing tinnitus it's important you contact your doctor for a check-up to rule out any serious infections or diseases. 

So what really is tinnitus, how can it impact a person's wellbeing and what can they do to manage their symptoms? Here's everything you need to know about the condition. 

What is tinnitus?

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) defines tinnitus as "ringing in the ears, but it also can sound like roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing".

According to the NIDCD, the sound can be soft or loud, low-pitched or high-pitched and it can be heard in one or both ears. 

Nic Wray, from the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) says "some people’s tinnitus is very quiet and in the background, but for others, it's very loud – and for some, it varies from day to day".

Just about everyone can experience tinnitus - it doesn't affect just one age or social group.

What are the causes of tinnitus?

The NIDCD says tinnitus is not a disease, but rather a symptom of a change within the auditory system. This could be as simple as ear wax blocking the ear canal or it could be a sign of something more serious such as hearing loss, head and neck trauma, infection, or disease. 

This is why it's important you see your doctor if you are experiencing tinnitus, so they can help you find the root cause of your symptoms and direct you to the correct treatment. 

How can tinnitus impact your mental health?

The American Tinnitus Association describes tinnitus as a "serious health condition that can negatively affect a patient’s quality of life". According to the ATA, around 20 million Americans have chronic tinnitus, while 2 million suffer extreme and debilitating cases. 

It's no wonder the condition can affect a person's mental health and wellbeing. In the UK, the BTA conducted research that showed just how severely the condition can impact a person's wellbeing, and often it comes down to its persistent and ever-present nature.

Nic from BTA explained, "Tinnitus can be unrelenting. It can be very difficult to move your attention away from the noises. The noises are not always pleasant in tone or quality. These combine to increase the person’s stress arousal response, which can trigger feelings of anxiety, mood changes and sleep disturbance."

Woman with tinnitus holding ear

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Hayley Smith, founder and owner of PR company Boxed Out PR, has tinnitus, as a result of suffering from meningitis a few years ago.

For her, the daily, high-pitched ringing she experiences can be debilitating. "The best way to describe the sound is someone shrieking in my ear. Sometimes I don't notice it, but other times it is deafening, and I can't hear over it."

Some days, the impact on Hayley's mental health is unbearable. "The tinnitus is worsened when I have high anxiety, and I have become really sensitive to loud noises including motorbikes and police sirens. It can sometimes leave me cowering in the street," she told w&h.

"In general, it makes me really anxious, and I can get very irritated and short-tempered when it's at its worst," Hayley continued. "It can make me feel trapped and claustrophobic.

"Most of the time, it's completely liveable - but there are days where it really affects me. There are times where it completely takes over. I can find myself sitting for ages just listening to it, not really registering anything else."

What are the treatments for Tinnitus?

As tinnitus usually occurs because of an underlying cause, it's important to speak with your doctor to determine the root of the problem first. Then, there are a number of ways you can manage and alleviate some of your symptoms. 

These include looking at your general wellbeing, assessing your diet and exercise routine to help you feel good. 

If the tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, a hearing aid like the Olive Pro by Olive Union could help. It's the first FDA-registered smart hearing aid that optimizes hearing and delivers hi-fidelity sound. The Olive Pro has been designed to be seen and not hidden like traditional hearing aids, and is actually a stylish 2-in-1 combo of hearing aids & Bluetooth earbuds. 

Other treatments for tinnitus include sound therapies and mental health therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where a mental health professional can help a patient manage their reactions to tinnitus. 

For more information and support, visit the ATA website.