Tinnitus (ti-NY-tus) is the sense of ringing, whistling, or similar noise in the ear when no external sound is present.

What Is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a mysterious disorder that affects as many as 50 million Americans. People with tinnitus often describe the sound they hear as a ringing, but they sometimes say it resembles whistles, sizzles, clicks, roars, or other sounds too complex to explain easily. Some people experience the noise only at certain times or notice it only when it is quiet, such as at bedtime. Others live with a constant unpleasant sound.

The noise can be high-pitched like a baby's whine or low like a rumbling train. It might sound like a continuous tone or cycle in a rhythm, often in time with the heartbeat.

What Causes Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is sometimes a symptom of other problems, such as too much earwax * or an ear or nasal infection. Other causes include cardiovascular disease, tumors, jaw misalignment, anemia * , and neck and head injuries. Certain medicines, such as aspirin and some antibiotics, as well as carbon monoxide and alcohol, can also cause tinnitus. Long-term exposure to loud sounds such as a jet plane or loud music can also lead to tinnitus.

Anatomy of the ear.

Anatomy of the ear.
Illustration by Frank Forney. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

What Can a Doctor Do?

First, a doctor looks for the cause. If a doctor can find the cause and determine that it can be corrected through a straightforward measure, such as removing earwax or treating an infection, the tinnitus usually goes away.

Sometimes a doctor cannot easily correct tinnitus, and people must find ways to live with it. Hearing aids are a common way to help if the cause is related to hearing loss. Sometimes the person uses a device such as a hearing aid that covers the tinnitus with another sound that is less noticeable or less disturbing.

See also Deafness and Hearing Loss • Ear Disorders: Overview • Ear Infections (Otitis) • Vertigo


Books and Articles

Marder, Jenny. “Neuroscience May Offer Hope to Millions Robbed of Silence by Tinnitus.” PBS, November 6, 2013. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/science-july-dec13-tinnitus_11-06/ (accessed November 17, 2015).


MedlinePlus. “Tinnitus.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/tinnitus.html (accessed November 17, 2015).

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. “Tinnitus.” http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/tinnitus.aspx (accessed November 17, 2015).


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 2200 Research Blvd., Rockville, MD 20850-3289. Toll-free: 800-638-8255. Website: http://www.asha.org (accessed November 17, 2015).

American Tinnitus Association. PO Box 5, Portland, OR 972070005. Toll-free: 800-634-8978. Website: http://www.ata.org (accessed November 17, 2015).

* earwax is the wax-like substance in the ear that traps dust and other particles to prevent them from damaging the inner ear. Also known as cerumen (se-ROO-men).

* anemia (uh-NEE-me-uh) is a blood condition in which there is decreased hemoglobin in the blood and, usually, fewer than normal numbers of red blood cells.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.