8 Possible Reasons Your Ears Are Ringing

An audiologist shares what might be causing you to hear ringing in your ears.

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ringing ears
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Why are your ears ringing?

Your ears are telling you something when they’re ringing, says Sean Kinden, a clinical audiologist in Gander, Newfoundland. “It’s their way of letting us know that something is not working quite the way it should be.” According to the Sound Therapy Healing Centre, over 360,000 Canadians have ringing ears, a condition known as tinnitus. It can affect adults young or old, it can be constant or intermittent, and it can be extremely bothersome or a light background noise. But tinnitus can have many causes.

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ringing ears | woman listening to music
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Loud sound

People who work with noisy equipment or habitually play extra-loud music put themselves at a high risk for tinnitus. But you can take steps to protect yourself from damage. “If you’re out jogging, set your music volume at half,” says Kinden, “and wear hearing protection, even when mowing the lawn.” (Related: Don’t miss these other things that can ruin your hearing.)

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ringing ears | doctor
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Ear wax buildup

Very often, a buildup of natural ear wax (called cerumen) can block your ears and make you hear sounds that aren’t there. “Just have the wax removed by a physician,” says Kinden. “Once it comes out, the ringing is gone.”

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ringing ears | dentist
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A temporomandibular joint and muscle disorder (TMJ) occurs where the jawbone connects to the skull — not inside the ear — but it can still cause you to hear abnormal sounds. “In my standard interview with patients, I ask, ‘Have you had any dental work done?’ and ‘Are you having troubles with your jaw?'” says Kinden. “For those, the dentist can actually help figure it out.”

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ringing ears | concussion
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Ringing in the ears is one of the symptoms of concussion, especially if it’s one-sided. Other signs of concussion include dizziness, nausea, and headache. (Related: Learn about the different types of headaches — and how to get rid of them.)

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ringing ears | pain medication
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Many kinds of medications cause tinnitus, especially at higher doses. These include certain antibiotics, antidepressants, and even an overload of aspirin. “Luckily, with a lot of the medications, once you’re off the meds, the ringing goes away,” says Kinden. (Related: Here are some important questions to ask your doctor before taking prescription medication.)

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ringing ears | woman talking to doctor
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A hereditary disorder called otosclerosis causes bone in the middle ear to grow abnormally. That can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus, starting in your mid-30s. But luckily, it’s treatable with surgery. And if you know you have a family history of otosclerosis, you can often pick up on it early.

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ringing ears | type 2 diabetes
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Medical condition

Ringing and roaring in the ears can be a symptom of a medical condition, such as abnormal fluid pressure in the inner ear (Meniere’s disease), a non-cancerous tumour (acoustic neuroma), hypertension, diabetes, or even allergies. If you’re not sure what’s causing the strange sounds in your ears, it’s time to have a chat with your healthcare provider to identify the underlying cause. Chances are, it can be treated.

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ringing ears | woman under stress
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“Technically, emotional stress is not a cause but it’s like an amplifier on your stereo,” says Kinden. “If something’s not going right, at the end of the day you’ll notice your tinnitus is louder.” Caffeine has a similar effect. Luckily, your hearing specialist can help you with strategies to reduce your symptoms. “The counselling portion is huge when it comes to tinnitus,” Kinden says. (Related: Learn the difference between good stress vs. bad stress.)

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ringing ears | doctor
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What if my ringing ears can’t be cured?

When damage to the ear is permanent, your tinnitus may be there for the long haul — but there are ways to manage it. A tiny device, worn in the ear like a hearing aid, can broadcast white noise to mask the ringing. Another approach, called tinnitus-retraining therapy, teaches you to tune out the sound instead of trying to mask it. A device is programmed to play a sound you enjoy — like ocean waves or instrumental music — at the exact same frequency as the ringing. Eventually, you learn to desensitize yourself to the tinnitus sounds. “It takes hours and hours of training in a clinic, but it works!” says Kinden.

This story was originally published in May, 2017.

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