Often described as a buzzing, humming, ringing, or swishing sound, the medical term used to describe ear ringing is tinnitus. The condition is not typically painful, but it is bothersome and can make daily tasks more difficult. If you consistently experience ringing in the ears, you should make an appointment with a medical provider. Tinnitus can be a symptom of an underlying illness.

Symptoms of Tinnitus

Ear ringing happens in the ear and the noise, which may also sound like a buzzing or humming, cannot typically be heard by others. Symptoms may vary in intensity and in pitch, and can be felt in one or both ears. Often, tinnitus is the result of exposure to loud noises, ear trauma, infection, or anemia.


Types of Ear Ringing

There are three types of tinnitus: subjective, objective, and pulsatile or "click." Subjective tinnitus, where no one else can hear the sounds, is the most common type. Click or pulsatile tinnitus has two symptoms: a buzzing or ringing sound and a rushing sound that matches the rhythm of the heartbeat. The most uncommon type of ear ringing is objective tinnitus. In this case, the doctor may actually be able to hear the noise the patient describes.


Cause: Exposure to Loud Noise

Loud noises such as music, firearms, sirens, and lawnmowers can cause damage to hearing. Many people have experienced short-term ringing in the ears after prolonged exposure to a loud concert or other noise. Besides experiencing tinnitus, frequent exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss. It is best to avoid noisy situations or use hearing protection such as earplugs or headphones.


Cause: Trauma

Trauma-induced tinnitus affects one or both ears, depending on the type of trauma. Loud noises, chemicals, neck injury, whiplash, can lead to this type of tinnitus. Brain injuries can cause auditory damage, tinnitus, and even hearing loss. Head or neck trauma may affect not only the inner ear but also hearing nerves and the brain areas linked to hearing.


Cause: Ear Infection

Infections in the middle part of the ear may cause ringing. Infections can be caused by a virus such as cold or flu or bacteria. Left untreated, an ear infection can cause more serious complications, such as mastoiditis (when the bone adjacent to the ear gets inflamed), perforation of the eardrum, hearing loss, and even Meniere's disease.


Cause: Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a common cause of tinnitus. The loss can be a result of trauma, loud noises, or age, all of which can damage the cochlea, the part of the ear that translates the vibration of the sounds. Research suggests that when the cochlea stops functioning properly, the brain does not receive proper signals related to sounds from the environment.


Types of Doctors for Ear Ringing

If you experience ringing in your ears, it is best to visit a general practitioner for diagnosis and referral. She or he may refer you to one of a few specialists, based on the cause of your condition. An ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) doctor is one such specialist. Additionally, an audiologist who specializes in auditory and balance systems can further diagnose and also prescribe hearing aids if necessary. People who experience tinnitus or hearing loss from an injury will likely see a physical therapist. If the condition is permanent, a psychologist can help patients come to terms with their new experience.


Diagnosing Tinnitus

The doctor will first perform a physical exam of the head and neck. Diagnostic tests include a hearing test or audiogram, and a CT or MRI scan might follow these. Blood tests may help find the underlying condition that causes tinnitus -- such as an infection, thyroid problems, or an autoimmune condition. There are also specific tests that evaluate the degree to which ear function is impaired, such as pure tone audiometry or PTA.


Medical Treatment

Tinnitus rarely occurs without an underlying condition, therefore the treatment plan will aim to treat the condition that causes tinnitus -- for example treating the ear infection or the trauma. Other options include hearing aids, counseling, antidepressants, cochlear implants, physical therapy, and chiropractic treatment. As always, it is important to adhere to instructions and follow up with the doctor for an evaluation if the ringing continues.


At-Home Remedies for Ear Ringing

It is best to visit the doctor to determine the cause of ringing ears if they last beyond a few hours. That said, several herbal supplements could minimize the likelihood of tinnitus, including ginkgo biloba, apple cider vinegar, onions, garlic, ginger, and saline solution. These at-home remedies have antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties that can help improve blood circulation and relieve pressure levels in the ear.


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