Unveiling the Top 5 Causes of Tinnitus

Key highlights:

  • Tinnitus, an irritating ringing or buzzing in the ears, has various different causes – but some are more common than others
  • The top five causes of tinnitus are age-related hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, earwax blockages, medications and medical conditions
  • We take a closer look at these causes of tinnitus – and some ways to prevent them, as well as how to reduce your symptoms

Do you ever hear a ringing in your ears? 

You might be quietly reading a book in your favorite nook, settling down to sleep after a long day, or even just going about your daily life – then suddenly you realize you can hear a small, high-pitched whine that reverberates around your head. Maybe you ask somebody close to you if they can hear it too, but no – it’s just you. 

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve almost certainly experienced tinnitus

But tinnitus doesn’t just manifest as a ringing in your ears, it can also give you the sensations of buzzing, hissing, chirping, whistling, and even roaring. Basically what we’re trying to say is that it isn’t a particularly pleasant thing to experience. 

But what are the causes of tinnitus? And how can you help to prevent it? Let’s take a look to find out more about the main tinnitus causes and cures.

1. Age-related hearing loss

The cause 

Your hearing works by the tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear – or cochlea – vibrating in response to sound waves. This movement triggers an electrical signal which travels up your auditory nerve to your brain, which then interprets the sound. 

All pretty cool stuff. However, as you get older these hairs can become bent and broken, which then causes them to leak random electrical impulses to your brain – causing tinnitus. 

Cumulative noise exposure can also contribute to age-related hearing loss. In other words, exposure to loud sounds throughout your lifetime can damage your hearing, which can – in turn – cause tinnitus. As the small hairs in your ears can become broken over time simply due to age, they can also be damaged or destroyed due to prolonged exposure to loud noises.

Essentially, the longer you’re exposed to high levels of noise throughout your life, the greater the risk of hearing damage and tinnitus as you get older.

So, how to prevent it?

Many people have tried, but unfortunately there isn’t a way to prevent aging…yet. Until that fateful day comes, we’re just going to have to accept that we’re all going to get older and our hearing won’t be as sharp. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t protect your hearing in the meantime.

There are lots of ways to protect your hearing. You can try to limit your exposure to overly loud environments – but that’s not always an easy solution, especially if you work in a loud environment, or are a big fan of concerts, festivals and other loud events. Which brings us to the next point…

2. Exposure to loud noises

There are times when you simply can’t help but be in loud places. Whether that’s on a commuter train on your way to work, living near a construction site, or attending concerts, festivals and other loud live events.

When you’re exposed to loud noises, those little hairs in your ears can be damaged – either temporarily or permanently. Temporary tinnitus often happens after a loud concert, or if you’re exposed to a sudden loud noise. Have you ever left a concert with ringing ears? That’s tinnitus. In most cases, it’ll go away after a few hours – but if you’re repeatedly exposed to loud noises, it can cause permanent damage.

And when the hairs are permanently damaged or destroyed, there’s no going back. That can mean chronic tinnitus, when you constantly have the perception of ringing or buzzing in your ears. For some people, it’s a mild annoyance, but for many others, it can be distressing and debilitating, severely impacting their quality of life.

High-decibel environments are one of the common causes of tinnitus, but while we can’t necessarily always avoid noise exposure, we can take steps to protect our ears when things get a bit loud. 

Whenever you’re knowingly entering a loud environment such as a busy bar, concert, or sports event, make sure that you are taking steps to protect your hearing from prolonged high noise levels. Earplugs for tinnitus are your best friend. Wearing noise-reducing earplugs will bring noise down to a safer level, while maintaining sound quality. That means you’ll still be able to hear everything that’s happening perfectly – just at a lower, safer volume.

3. Earwax blockage

Can a buildup of wax cause tinnitus? Absolutely. 

Your ears are self-cleaning. Whenever you move your jaw, the wax inside your ear canal moves towards the opening where it’ll either fall out, dry up, or flake. However, you can still get a buildup of wax through an ear infection, or just if your ears are producing more wax than your canal can shift. You can also have a foreign body get trapped in your canal, or an infection can cause your canal to fill with liquid.  

When this happens, the blockage can cause a change of pressure inside your ear, which can be one of the major causes of tinnitus. 

Besides normal hygiene habits and not sticking strange things into your ear, it may be difficult to avoid an infection or a foreign body. However, you can prevent a buildup of wax by completely avoiding cotton swabs, otherwise known as Q-tips. 

While these swabs may be branded as a method of cleaning your ears, they actually do far more harm than good. Pushing anything into your ear will likely cause the wax to be pushed further into your canal and become compacted against your eardrum, leading to hearing loss and tinnitus. 

So while it’s good hygiene practice to clean around the outside of your ears, let nature take care of the inside.

4. Medications and ototoxicity

Ototoxicity is a condition that causes hearing, balance problems, dizziness and tinnitus, and it can happen when you take certain medications.  There are various medications that can cause this, including chemotherapy drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, and some antibiotics.

Ototoxic medications can harm the hairs in our inner ear, which stops them from working normally and can cause tinnitus. The severity of your tinnitus may vary depending on the dosage of your medication, how long you’re using it for, and your individual susceptibility.

It’s important to understand any potential side effects before taking new medication – but, of course, it’s also essential to take medications where necessary. This type of tinnitus usually only lasts as long as you’re taking the medication. 

5. Medical conditions and disorders

Your ears are sensitive. And because of this, they are susceptible to a number of infections, diseases, and disorders, such as:

  • Ménière's disease: This inner ear disorder is characterized by episodes of vertigo, losing your balance, fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus, and a feeling of pressure in the ear. 
  • Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders: The TMJ connects the jawbone to the skull, and if there’s a problem with this joint, it can cause tinnitus.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension): High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in the inner ear, which can trigger tinnitus symptoms.

Many of these diseases and disorders are caused by issues beyond our control. But often, with the right treatment, you can reduce the symptoms. You may need to take medications to manage Ménière's disease or hypertension, or undergo physical therapy for TMJ disorders – both of which may help to relieve your tinnitus symptoms/

If you believe you are suffering from any of these conditions, make sure to visit your physician at the earliest convenience.

Take care of your ears

So, what causes tinnitus? Well, age-related hearing loss, exposure to loud noise, earwax blockages, medications and medical disorders are the top five causes – but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. It would be near impossible to list all the causes of tinnitus because there are more and more being discovered each day, and it can vary from person to person. Some people experience tinnitus in one ear only, while others suffer in both ears. Some may only experience tinnitus at night, while others may hear it constantly.  

But if there’s one thing that rings true no matter what, it’s that you should always take care and protect your ears. If you experience tinnitus and it’s affecting your mental health or disrupting your daily life, you should always seek medical help. And remember, there are ways to stop your ringing ears – although it may be a case of trial and error until you find the right treatment for you.

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