What is tinnitus and can it lead to hearing loss?

It is common to experience a ringing sound in your ears every once in a while. Almost every one of us experiences a ringing now and then. However, if you are constantly hearing a faint or loud ringing noise in your sound, you must seek immediate medical attention.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a common problem where a person experiences a ringing, roaring, clicking or buzzing sound in the ears. This sound can be soft, loud, low pitched or of high intensity and is often not audible to others. While initially, this condition may not affect you much, if left untreated it can worsen and will affect your quality of life.

What are the factors that can cause tinnitus?

It is important to understand that tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom indicating auditory ailments. Any abnormalities in the auditory system such as the ear, auditory nerves, and the parts of the brain processing sound waves can cause tinnitus. Other conditions that may also lead to tinnitus include –

Age: People above the age of 65 years are affected by tinnitus.

Excess accumulation of earwax: Excess earwax can sometimes clog the ear canal and may cause temporary tinnitus and hearing issues.

External entities stuck in the ear: Foreign objects like pens, caps, and pencil tips can get lodged into the ear while cleaning it. These objects can further damage the eardrum which can lead to tinnitus.

Loud noise leading to hearing loss: Exposure to continuous or sudden loud noise can damage the sensory hair cells of the inner ears, which are responsible for transmitting sound waves to the brain. This damage can eventually cause tinnitus. Usually, people who work in noisy environments like factories, construction sites or musicians can experience tinnitus if they are working without proper protective gear.

Meniere’s disease: This is a chronic ear disorder that causes tinnitus along with hearing loss, and balance issues.

Runny nose and congestion – These conditions have been known to cause tinnitus and ear pain.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders: Any inflammation in the joints or the muscles surrounding the joints can lead to the development of continuous sound in the ear.

Vascular diseases: A defect in the blood vessels supplying blood to the head and the neck can cause rhythmic pulsating sounds in the ears.

Acoustic neuroma (vestibular schwannoma): This is a non-cancerous tumour that affects the nerves attached to the inner ear to the brain and causes tinnitus and balancing issues.

Medications: Medications have several side effects and some can also cause tinnitus as a side effect.

Can tinnitus lead to hearing loss and what are preventive measures that you can take to avoid tinnitus?

Tinnitus is usually an underlying condition and is accompanied by age-related hearing loss, an ear injury or an issue with the circulatory system. Therefore, to avoid this condition, you must protect your ears from external irritants and hearing systems. Additionally, you must avoid exposure to loud noises and must wear earplugs if you are doing any machine work.

Authored by Dr. Prateek Nayak, Consultant – ENT Surgery, Aster CMI Hospital, Bangalore

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