While sitting around the table with a couple of friends, you hear it again—that metallic whistling sound. It’s a busy morning at the cafe with lots of hustle and bustle, but this sound sticks out as unnatural. You look around at other people’s faces, but everyone else is smiling and chatting with the people at their table.
“Do you hear that?” you ask your friends, who stop talking to listen. “Hear what?” your friend responds cluelessly.
If this is becoming a common habit for you, it might be time to talk to your doctor about tinnitus—that is, ringing in your ears.
Tinnitus is when you perceive a sound, but no actual noise is present. While it’s commonly called “ringing,” the sounds can vary: Americans with tinnitus (there are over 50 million of them) describe the sounds as whistling, hissing, roaring, buzzing, and even clicking. Tinnitus may be temporary, or it could be chronic and last over six months.
But the thing about tinnitus is that it’s a symptom, not a disease itself. Unfortunately, it often signals damage to the ear, such as:
Age-related hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss (such as from gunfire or loud concerts)
Blockages in the ear (such as from ear wax)
Or serious injuries to the head, neck, or brain.
Tinnitus is also a potential symptom of certain diseases, like Lyme disease, hypertension, thyroid problems, or neurological disorders. In other words, even if tinnitus isn’t severe and you can tolerate it, it’s still a good idea to visit a doctor since it might signal a bigger problem that needs medical care.
When Tinnitus Is Severe
For some people, ringing in the ears can be so severe that it disrupts daily life. It may disrupt concentration, harm your ability to hear and communicate with others, affect your sleep quality and quantity, and even increase your anxiety and depression.
Treatment for tinnitus attempts to target the underlying problem, like wearing hearing aids to treat hearing loss. Other treatments help you learn how to mask the sound or adjust to it. For example, playing quiet music or using a white noise machine in quiet environments may help mask the ringing and be helpful for some people.
Whether your tinnitus is mild or severe, talk to your doctor about this pesky symptom so you can start therapies to rein in the ring—and catch related medical problems early.