Perhaps you hear a high-pitched ringing… perhaps a buzzing, chirping, whistling or whirring. Nobody else can hear it — but the quieter it gets around you, the worse the noise in your head. This bothersome condition, tinnitus, afflicts an estimated 10% to 16% of Americans.
Tinnitus most often develops when a person has hearing loss caused by nerve damage from prolonged or extreme exposure to loud noise. It also can be a side effect of antibiotics, aspirin, diuretics and some cancer drugs. Tinnitus usually appears after age 50 but is increasingly common in younger people due to high-volume use of personal music players (iPod, Walkman). It can occur during pregnancy due to increased blood volume — and may or may not go away after delivery.
Tinnitus usually is not a serious health problem, but it should be evaluated — so consult an otolaryngologist.
Referrals: American Tinnitus Association, 800-634-8978, www.ata.org. There is no cure, but various strategies can ease symptoms and help you cope…
Cut caffeine and salt. Caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola and chocolate) constricts blood flow to the ear… and salt can raise blood pressure, aggravating tinnitus.
Keep ears clean. Excessive earwax can muffle outside noises and amplify internal ringing.
Home remedy: Mix hydrogen peroxide with an equal amount of water, and place two drops in each ear weekly. Or see your doctor to have your ears irrigated.
Reduce stress. Muscle relaxation, meditation, biofeedback, exercise and other stress-reducing techniques may alleviate symptoms.
Fill the room with white noise. A constant low-level background sound masks the inner ringing. In a quiet room and at bedtime, turn on a fan or tabletop fountain, or use a white-noise machine (about $30 to $60 at home-products stores).
Wear a tinnitus masker. This miniature white-noise device resembles a hearing aid and fits behind or in the ear.
Cost: About $2,000. To obtain one, ask your doctor for a referral to an audiologist.
Try a hearing aid. This eases tinnitus for about half of people with significant hearing loss. It amplifies outside sounds, which obscures inner sounds.
Retrain your brain. A new treatment provided by trained audiologists, tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) may help up to 80% of patients. Sometimes improvement is noticed after just a few sessions. Typically, you attend weekly or monthly hour-long sessions during which you wear a special hearing aid programmed with a facsimile of your particular tinnitus sound. You are shown how to train your brain to be less sensitive to the ringing.
Rarely, tinnitus may be caused by a tumor. Call your doctor without delay if your tinnitus sounds like a pulsing or whooshing… is heard on only one side of your head… or is accompanied by dizziness or a sudden decrease in ability to discriminate between similar words, such as cat and hat.