Tinnitus: What to do about ringing in the ears

Carolyn Schatz

Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

At one time or another, almost everyone experiences a ringing in their ears. It’s common after sitting through a loud concert or an exuberant football game, or after taking aspirin or an antibiotic for a while. But as many as 50 million Americans have chronic tinnitus (pronounced tih-NITE-us or TIN-ih-tus)—a constant ringing, whistling, buzzing, chirping, hissing, humming, roaring, or even shrieking. (If you don’t have tinnitus, you can get an idea of what people with the condition hear at the American Tinnitus Association’s Web site.)

Chronic tinnitus can be caused by a variety of things, from impacted ear wax to medications that damage nerves in the ear, middle ear infection, and even aging. Damage to hair cells in the ear’s cochlea (see the illustration below) are suspected as a common pathway for these causes. As I write in the September issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, chronic tinnitus can also be a symptom of Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the balance mechanism in the inner ear. (You can read the full article here.)

Managing tinnitus

When chronic tinnitus is caused by a definable problem, like ear wax or grinding your teeth at night or taking aspirin, addressing that problem will often turn down the volume. Otherwise, several strategies can help make tinnitus less bothersome.

One of the simplest approaches is masking the noise. You can do this by listening to music or having a radio, fan, or white-noise machine going in the background. If money is no issue, you can buy devices worn like hearing aids that generate low-level white noise. Although there isn’t enough evidence from randomized trials to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of masking, hearing experts often recommend it before turning to more expensive options such as cognitive behavioral therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy, biofeedback and stress management, and transcutaneous electrical stimulation of parts of the inner ear.

Not all insurance companies cover tinnitus treatments in the same way, so be sure to check your coverage. If you’re willing to enroll in a research study, you may be able to receive a cutting-edge treatment free. (For more information, go to www.clinicaltrials.gov, and enter the search term “tinnitus.”)

Hair cells in the cochlea transform sound waves into electrical signals that travel to the brain's auditory cortex. When these cells are damaged by loud noise, medications, or other problematic inputs, brain circuits don't receive the signals they are expecting to get. They respond by generating abnormal activity, which results in the illusion of sound, which is tinnitus.

The Harvard Women’s Health Watch is a monthly newsletter from Harvard Health Publishing, the consumer publishing division of Harvard Medical School.


  1. Neil

    ps. I can imagine insurance companies would be very difficult with this condition too…

  2. Neil Hendry

    It’s incredible just how many people suffer from tinnitus symptoms. 50 million is a colossal number and I read an article recently by from the ATA, that they are still a long way away from really understanding it……makes you wonder whether stressful modern lifestyles are part of the problem….we definitely need to relax more;)

  3. Martin

    Agreed, very nice article on the topic tinnitus.

    I’m a DJ, being doing it for the past 5 years now, however when I leave a DJ set now I do get ringing in my ears, maybe lasting for a few hours or so, getting rather concerned as it does seem to be last a little longer every time I DJ.

    I came across this webpage. It mentions that you can get herbal remedies for tinnitus, do they even work? I thought it was a natural healing process?

  4. Jason Fox

    I really appreciate the effort you’ve put into this piece of tinnitus management. Not everyone can afford the hearing aids or therapy, so it’s nice to see that you’re suggesting the use of noise-masking. Thanks for the contribution to our tinnitus community!


  5. Eva Hart

    There is a new song in the air. I discovered a cure for my mild case of Tinnitus. Because I found compassion and money was there when I had a major Surgery in past,I gave for free the cure for Tinnitus to all the Ear ENT Clinics at hospitals in San Francisco. I hope they’ll do the Research and FDA will approve it eventually. I submitted to SFGH my 6 month in depth closer
    observation Report of Tinnitus. Also now a one year Report of Tinnitus and it’s patterns of sound waves and my CSW Tinnitus cure. I knew of sound waves. I play piano and knew Bach created counter melodies thus I
    experimented with Bells and other sounds and found a sound my ear adjusts to easily and likes being so soft and gentle. Finding this right sound is like looking for a needle in a haystack thus it explains why it was not discovered sooner. However I discovered it early on when experimenting the counter soundwave right sound. Any doctor who reads this is welcomed to contact my doctors at San Francisco General Hospital for further details in my medical record to read about my CSW Tinnitus cure. You can contact me too. Eva L. Hart Sfc.

  6. Anonymous

    This provide some specific information relates to the tinnitus.

  7. Mason

    Great information and understanding. Sometimes masking works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it can be as simple as lace of lipo-flavinoids.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  8. Hobert

    I heard there is something called music therapy. It is said that it can treat tinnitus by through hearing music and increase the music frequency or something.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  9. Sound Guy

    Natural sounds have been proven very successful as an effective measure to treat Tinnitus. The Web site transcendentaltones.com contains a vast collection of downloadable sounds, such as flowing water, rain, toads, wind, etc. I do not suffer from this condition, thus I cannot personally support the claim, but it’s worth the try!
    [URL removed by moderator]

  10. Susan

    This is a more serious affliction for some of us who experience a very high shrill sound, with no escape, 24/7. Suicide sometimes looks pretty good. My tinnitus is not maskable so I wish there was something for people like me as I get pretty sick of hearing that same advice “mask it”….if only!

  11. Mark V

    It seems that I hear the ringing in my ears more when I am around the computer or the television. I always sleep with a fan on a night so I don’t have any problems with sleep.
    Thanks for this article.

  12. Paul

    Hi Carolyn, thanks for this great post. I really enjoyed read it.

  13. Karen

    These articles never offer any new information. “Mask it with music or a fan”; heard it a thousand times. My T isn’t always maskable, and white noise, to me, is almost as annoying.

  14. Dr. Russ Hornstein

    Ringing in the ears as an ‘experience’ is due to the ringing in the ears area of the brain becoming active, to put it simply (as in the above picture). This can be due to mechanical factors, chemical factors or neurological factors. Neurologically, if this area comes to excitation threshold, the person experiences ringing in the ears. This can be due to excitation of this area (load noises) or decreased inhibition. The latter scenario is very often the case in older people as the global afferentation and integration of the cortex begins to fail. This can be treated very successfully through stimulating the parts of the brain which are presynaptically inhibitory to it.

  15. New Jersey Hypnotist James Malone

    Stress reduction and releasing the fear/panic associated with the tinnitus can improve your quality of life. If you search online you can find a free copy of e-book I wrote “Calm Your Tinnitus: The Less You Fear It, The Less You Hear It” which contains some ideas you may find helpful.

  16. Brad McBride

    FYI, I have some free Tinnitus masking MP3 downloads at my website. We don’t even ask for an email address. Just search my name and the word tinnitus.

  17. Congratulations this is the best article on tinnitus I have seen

    For tooth grinding I recommend draw a vertical line on a mirror and relax your jaw to make sure you open in the mid line and not to the side
    To relax the jaw try count your breathing count four on inhale and six on exhale because you relax when you exhale

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