Think you’re hearing things? You might have tinnitus

It affects at least one in five people at some stage in their life, but what exactly is tinnitus? And can you do anything to get rid of it?

Swear you can hear strange noises, but people around you can’t hear a thing?

You might have something called tinnitus.

The condition is more common in older adults, and at least one in five Australians experience it, where they hear hissing, whooshing, buzzing, clicking or whistling sounds, or simply a ringing in the ears, that only they can hear.

The noise may be quite loud or quite faint, it may affect one or both ears, and it might come and go or remain constant.

Sometimes, tinnitus is also accompanied by symptoms of hearing loss or vertigo.

“For many, the uninvited ringing or noises in the ear arrive and never leave,” Dr Caitlin Barr, CEO of hearing charity Soundfair, says.

So, what causes tinnitus?

A few different things can cause tinnitus, including ear infections, a build-up of ear wax, a head or neck injury and even certain medications.

Hearing loss is another cause of tinnitus – in fact, age-related hearing loss explains why, even though children and young adults can have tinnitus, older adults are more likely to experience it.

However, one of the major preventable causes of tinnitus is exposure to loud noise, such as listening to loud music through headphones or workplace noise.

More than 1.1 million workers in Australia are exposed to harmful levels of noise on the job, and it’s estimated that more than half a million Australian workers experience constant tinnitus.

“The workplace is one of the most common sources of noise-induced hearing loss,” Hearing Australia principal audiologist Karen Hirschausen says.

Industries that are often affected include construction and manufacturing, but they’re not the only places where workers experience noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

“There are many other industries that are at an increased risk of NIHL, which can result in irreversible tinnitus and/or hearing loss,” Karen says.

“For example, airline workers, emergency responders, DJs and musicians, farmers – even teachers.”

Is tinnitus permanent?

Not always. Some people notice that their tinnitus improves or even goes away completely over time.

For example, where tinnitus is caused by a build-up of ear wax, addressing the problem can greatly reduce or even eliminate symptoms.

For many people though, tinnitus symptoms last for months, years or even permanently.

What are the effects of tinnitus?

Tinnitus can be extremely distressing and debilitating, particularly in the early stages.

It’s not uncommon for people living with tinnitus to experience sleep problems, poor concentration, irritability and mood swings.

There’s also a link between tinnitus and anxiety and depression.

Can tinnitus be cured?

There’s no cure for tinnitus, but you can get help.

“Evidence-based treatments are available and we’re learning much more about the causes,” Dr Barr says.

“For some, it can be as simple as stress reduction techniques, for others, targeted treatments involving sound therapy, psychological therapy, and treatment of other conditions (such as hearing loss) are needed.”

However, many people simply get used to living with it.

This is called habituation – a decrease in response to a frequently repeated stimulus – which means your tinnitus ceases to negatively affect your life.

How is tinnitus treated?

Treatment for tinnitus depends on the underlying causes of the condition, as well as how much it’s bothering you.

For example, if tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, wearing hearing aids can reduce or even eradicate tinnitus.

Sound therapy and a psychological therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, can reduce the distress that tinnitus can cause.

Management techniques including avoiding loud noise, which makes tinnitus worse, can also help.

If you think you have tinnitus, see your doctor who may suggest you visit an audiologist or an ear, nose and throat specialist.

What can you do to prevent tinnitus?

Depending on the cause, tinnitus can’t always be prevented, but there are steps you can take to avoid NIHL, which can lead to tinnitus, particularly in the workplace.

“Workplace noise can and should be managed by implementing a range of control methods – and that can be as simple as limiting time spent in noisy environments, using quiet equipment and ensuring you wear appropriate hearing protection,” Karen says.

Early intervention is also critical.

“Workers live with the legacy of hearing loss long after they put down their tools,” Karen says.

“That’s why it’s so important for people who work in noisy environments to stay on top of their hearing health.

“Get regular hearing checks and if you notice any changes, you should see an audiologist – the key is to not delay getting help.”

Tinnitus Awareness Week begins on February 5 – visit Tinnitus Australia to find out more or to get involved.

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Written by Karen Fittall.