The word ‘tinnitus’ comes from the Latin word for ‘ringing’ and is the perception of sound in the absence of any corresponding external sound. This noise may be heard in one ear, in both ears or in the middle of the head or it may be difficult to pinpoint its exact location. The noise may be low, medium or high‑pitched. There may be a single noise or two or more components. The noise may be continuous or it may come and go.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a disease or an illness, it is a symptom generated within a person’s own auditory pathways. Although it is often assumed that tinnitus occurs as a result of disease of the ears, this is often not the case. The precise cause of tinnitus is still not fully understood.

Who gets tinnitus?

Experiences of tinnitus are very common in all age groups, especially following exposure to loud noise; however, it is unusual for it to be a major problem. There is a widely held misconception that tinnitus is confined to the elderly, but various studies have shown that it can occur at any age, even in quite young children. Mild tinnitus is common ‑ about 10 per cent of the population have it all the time and, in up to one per cent of adults, this may affect the quality of their life.

What to do if you think you have tinnitus?

Tinnitus is rarely an indication of a serious disorder, but it is wise to see your doctor if you think you might have it. Should something treatable be causing it, you may be referred to a specialist.

Try not to worry!

The noises may seem worse if you are anxious or stressed. When tinnitus starts, particularly if it’s sudden, you may naturally be frightened and your concentration or your sleep may be disturbed. You may get angry and frustrated because no‑one else understands, or you may live alone and not have anyone to talk to about it ‑ that’s where your local AIHHP member may be able to help – many  members’ centres offer Tinnitus management services and a range of devices to help manage tinnitus including white noise generators and maskers, bedside sound generators, relaxation devices and pillow speakers for discreet listening.

You can also contact the British Tinnitus Association and speak to one of the helpline advisers who have years of experience talking to people with tinnitus, they can also put you in touch with a support group or contact if there is one in your area. Groups are run by people who are living with tinnitus ‑ personal contact and shared experience are very useful for many people with tinnitus.

You will probably feel better when you find out more about the condition ‑ that it’s very common and you’re not alone. There is lots of information on the British Tinnitus Association’s Website for you to explore, written by experts in the field.

Many people say they notice tinnitus less when they are doing something. Keeping your mind occupied helps (but don’t overdo things). If the noises seem louder at quiet times, particularly during the night, it may help to have soothing music or some other environmental or natural sound quietly on in the background.

Practising relaxation and taking time out for yourself can also be a great help.

UCL Professor discusses tinnitus research

David McAlpine, Professor of Auditory Neuroscience and Director of the UCL Ear Institute, has lived with tinnitus for several years. He is also a well known expert in tinnitus research.