Many things can cause ringing in ears


January 19, 1993|By Dr. Simeon Margolis | Dr. Simeon Margolis,Contributing Writer

Q: I have a constant ringing in my ears. It is particularl annoying at night when I am trying to get to sleep. What causes this and can anything be done to make it go away?

A: The medical term for the ringing noise heard by you, but not by others, is tinnitus. It can also have a buzzing, roaring, whistling or hissing quality.

Although tinnitus may be caused by something as simple as a plug of wax in the ear, more often it is a symptom of a more serious problem in the middle ear, such as a hole in the eardrum, stiffening of the middle ear bones (otosclerosis), an infection or a collection of fluid. All of these may be accompanied by some loss of hearing.

One of the leading causes of tinnitus (and hearing loss) is chronic exposure to loud noises. Some medications also damage the acoustic nerve, and tinnitus is associated with diabetes, allergies, blood-pressure abnormalities and thyroid problems.

Although in most cases the cause of tinnitus cannot be found, it is important to have a thorough evaluation by an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist) who may be able to identify and treat an underlying cause. If your hearing is impaired, a hearing aid may reduce the ringing noise.

Your difficulty in getting to sleep is a common problem for people with tinnitus, which is usually more bothersome in quiet surroundings. Tinnitus can be made less noticeable by using a competing sound to mask the ringing within your head.

You might be helped, especially in getting to sleep, by listening to music at low volume or to the rushing sound (called white noise) produced by tuning the radio dial between two FM stations to generate a subdued static. Others have benefited from a tinnitus masker, a small device worn like a hearing aid that presents a more pleasant sound than the tinnitus.

Dr. Margolis is a professor of medicine and biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and associate dean for faculty affairs at the school.

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