Can You Hear Me Now?

Tinnitus (pronounced either “tin-nit-us” or “tin-night-us”) is the perception of sound when no external sound is present. Some consider this a nuisance; for others it is a life-altering condition. Those who have not experienced tinnitus often question the severity of the experience. But those with severe tinnitus understand the agitation all too well and search for understanding, compassion, answers, and peace/quiet.

How Common Is Tinnitus?
According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) approximately 50 million people in the United States experience tinnitus at some time in their lives. Approximately 5% are distressed enough to seek medical treatment. Although its occurrence is common, it is often uncommonly understood how it really affects (psychologically, emotionally, physically) those who have it.

What Does Tinnitus Sound Like?
Some describe tinnitus as “ringing in the ears” or “crickets.” Others describe “ocean, seashell” sounds or even “roaring,” “bussing,” or “jet engines.” People with severe tinnitus usually hear the noise every waking moment of the day.

What Causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is often associated with noise exposure, certain medications (aspirins, some antibiotics, etc.), wax buildup, head trauma, whiplash, eustachian tube dysfunction, allergies, ear or sinus infections, jaw or bite misalignment (TMJ disorders), cardiovascular disease, Meniere’s disease, auditory-nerve tumors, otosclerosis, or an underactive thyroid. When a medical condition is resolved, the accompanying tinnitus is sometimes relieved.

What Treatments Are Available?
Many treatment options may provide relief, but that there are no “magic pills.” If a patient has a history of hearing loss and tinnitus, more often than not amplification (i.e., just turning it up) may help the patient hear ambient sounds and take the focus away from the tinnitus. Room fans or tapes of soothing, pleasant nature sounds may mask the noise and calm the person. Tinnitus retraining therapy attempts to train the brain to ignore (or habituate) the tinnitus. The duration of this treatment, which includes directive counseling, can be more than one year.

Keep in mind that each person’s tinnitus responds differently to attempts at relief. It is often necessary to try a variety of approaches before the best therapy or combination of therapies is found.

What Makes Tinnitus Worse?
Lots of things exacerbate the condition, although reactions vary greatly from person to person. Overexposure to noise is the biggest aggravation, which is why hearing protective devices (HPDs) are recommended in noisy areas or when working near lawnmowers, stereos, hair dryers, motorcycles, power tools, chainsaws, concerts, movies, and loud groups. Some medications are ototoxic (damaging to the ear) and may make tinnitus worse too. Consequently, patients with tinnitus should let their physicians/audiologists know about the tinnitus and all prescriptions they are taking. Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and stress can also inflame tinnitus.

How Can You Help Someone Cope with Tinnitus?
First, acknowledge that tinnitus is real and it is stressful. Second, learn all you can about tinnitus. Third, join a support network together. To learn more about tinnitus, visit the American Academy of Audiology at, the American Tinnitus Association at, the American Speech and Hearing Association at, and the Better Hearing Institution at

Dr. Cheryl Drost is a certified audiologist at Big Sky Ear, Nose & Throat. She has written and presented on a variety of topics including nose-induced hearing loss, pediatric hearing screenings, and the purpose of hearing-conservation programs.