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I have a ringing in my ear. Should I be concerned?


The question

I hear occasional tones in my one ear. What is that - and should I be concerned?

The answer

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Hearing a ringing or a tone in the ears when there is no external sound present is called tinnitus. It can be experienced as a ringing, buzzing, clicking or hissing sound in one or both ears. Tinnitus can be heard occasionally or as a constant sound. While the volume of tinnitus is usually a soft sound, for some it can be quite loud and disruptive.

While tinnitus is generally harmless, it can significantly affect one's quality of life. It can increase stress, make it difficult to concentrate and interfere with sleep. In some situations, the irritation of tinnitus can lead to depression or anxiety.

For the majority of people, tinnitus is irritating. But the tone itself isn't anything serious: Tinnitus is not a disease but a symptom of age-related hearing change, ear injury or a symptom of an underlying condition. It is usually a temporary symptom that improves after the injury to the ear has resolved, such as after infection or trauma from noise exposure. In some cases, however, tinnitus is permanent.

Common causes range from normal aging, non-cancerous growths (acoustic neuroma) on the nerves of the hearing system, blood vessel problems in the head or neck, disorders of the inner ear, and use of medication such as certain antibiotics, water pills or aspirin at high doses.

If you are experiencing tinnitus, I recommend seeing your doctor to understand the potential cause of your symptoms. Your doctor will ask if you have any other associated symptoms such as vertigo, headaches or pain and may order hearing tests and investigations. Treatment for tinnitus depends on the underlying cause.

For those who also have hearing loss, a hearing aid may be helpful to increase the clarity and volume of outside sounds and make tinnitus less noticeable. If there is a potential medication triggering the tinnitus, stopping the medication may help improve symptoms.

If there is no cause found, your doctor may be able to offer you some tips on how to manage the symptoms so they become less bothersome such as masking devices or background noise machines that can produce low level sounds which can be helpful for some, but can worsen symptoms for others. Behavioural therapy and counselling to improve coping skills to deal with tinnitus and improve quality of life.

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Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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