Harvard Health Letter

This is an earful that nobody wants

Tinnitus creates continual noise, even when there is nothing to hear. Solutions are hard to find.

William Leighton heard hundreds, if not thousands, of fire alarms and sirens in his 27 years as a Bangor, Me., firefighter. But they didn't bother the semi-retired lieutenant nearly so much as the sound he hears now when it's dead quiet. "It's a metallic ringing," says Leighton, 59. "It's like the noise you hear when you stand under high-tension wires, but this is in my head."

Leighton has tinnitus: the perception of sound without an external source. We've all had ringing in our ears at one time or another, but usually temporarily after, say, a loud concert. But for tinnitus (pronounced tin-NIGHT-us or TIN-it-us) sufferers like Leighton, the sound often seems to start for no reason — and then won't go away. He had been retired from active firefighting for over a decade when his tinnitus started. Ringing is common, but people also experience relentless buzzing, cricket-like noises, hissing, or humming. Men experience it more than women, and like so many other conditions, it becomes more common with age.

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