This is a new service. Please help us improve it by leaving your feedback.

Back

Understanding tinnitus and its causes

Understanding tinnitus and its causes

Find out what tinnitus is, how it can be caused and how to get help.

What tinnitus is

Tinnitus is the name for hearing noises that are not caused by an outside source. It’s common – around 1 in 8 adults in the UK have tinnitus all the time or regularly.

Most often, tinnitus is linked to hearing loss or other ear conditions. It’s rarely a sign of a serious condition.

Learn what tinnitus sounds like.

If you find that your tinnitus doesn’t go away after a few days, or is bothering you, you can get help to manage it.

Most people find that their tinnitus improves over time.


Causes of tinnitus

Most cases of tinnitus are linked to hearing loss caused by damage to the inner ear, such as through normal ageing or exposure to loud noise. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural.

Less commonly, tinnitus is linked to hearing loss caused by a blockage or ear condition that affects the outer or middle ear and stops sound waves from passing into the inner ear. This type of hearing loss is called conductive.

Find out about the signs of hearing loss

Loud noise

A common cause of both hearing loss and tinnitus is loud noise.

It’s common to have ringing in your ears after exposure to loud noise –you might get it after a loud concert or night out. Often the tinnitus goes away after a day or 2, but it’s a warning sign that the noise was loud enough to damage your hearing.

If you find that your tinnitus doesn’t go away after a few days, or is bothering you, you can get help to manage it.

Most people find that their tinnitus improves over time.

How loud noises damage your hearing

Inside the cochlea (our hearing organ that sits deep inside our ears), there are thousands of sound-sensing cells called hair cells. These tiny cells are essential for hearing: they pick up sound waves and turn them into electrical signals that are sent to the brain and interpreted as sound.

If you are exposed to dangerously loud levels of sound, this can damage the delicate structures of the inner ear, including the hair cells. This can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus or both.

There are 2 factors that determine how likely you are to experience hearing loss or tinnitus from loud noise exposure:

  • how loud the sound is
  • how long you’re exposed to it.

Experts agree that hair cells can start to become damaged by noise at 85 decibels (dB) and above.

Read more about loud noise exposure and how to protect your hearing.

Examples of sounds 85dB and above

  • Food blender: 85dB
  • Heavy traffic: 88dB
  • Pneumatic drill: 91dB
  • Industrial fire alarm: 97dB
  • Nightclub: 100dB
  • Live gig or concert: 110dB
  • Aeroplane taking off 100m away: 130dB

Ear conditions

Tinnitus can happen when there is a change in the hearing or balance system and is often linked to hearing loss. The ear is made up of lots of different parts and a change in how these parts work can sometimes cause tinnitus. This could be a temporary change, such as a blockage caused by ear wax, or a permanent condition that affects the inner ear.

Learn how the ear works.

Ear-related conditions that can be associated with tinnitus include:

  • a build-up of ear wax
  • a perforated (torn or burst) eardrum
  • ear infections such as glue ear
  • otosclerosis (a permanent condition that affects the middle ear)
  • Ménière’s disease (a permanent condition that affects the inner ear)
  • neurological disorders including acoustic neuroma, which is a non-cancerous growth that affects the hearing nerve and is a permanent condition that affects the inner ear.

Read more about causes of tinnitus.

Other causes

Sometimes, but uncommonly, tinnitus can be linked to other medical conditions:

  • head or neck injuries
  • cardiovascular disorders, especially high blood pressure
  • metabolic disorders including hypothyroidism and diabetes
  • certain medications that are used to treat serious illnesses such as cancer.

For some people, tinnitus doesn’t appear to be linked to any particular cause.

Read more about the causes of tinnitus.


What to do if you think you have tinnitus

Find out what to do if you think you have tinnitus.


What to do if you need extra support with tinnitus

If you’re finding it hard to manage your tinnitus, see your GP, who can help you get the support you need.

You can also talk through anything that’s troubling you by calling our Tinnitus Helpline or a listening service.

Tinnitus Helpline

Our Tinnitus Helpline offers free, confidential information and emotional support for people with tinnitus. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Email
tinnitushelpline@rnid.org.uk
Call
0808 808 6666 (freephone)
Text message
07800 000360 (text message only)
Relay UK
18001 then 0808 808 0123
Textphone
0808 808 9000
Write to us
Tinnitus Helpline, RNID, 9 Bakewell Road, Orton Southgate, Peterborough, PE2 6XU

Free 24-hour listening services

These services offer confidential advice from trained volunteers any time of day or night. They won’t be able to provide information about tinnitus, but you can talk about anything that’s troubling you.

Samaritans

Call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org for a reply within 24 hours

Shout Crisis Text Line

Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258