The University of Arizona

The Healthy Dose

Expert insights from UArizona Health Sciences

What is that ringing in your ears?

Women with ear pain

People who suffer from tinnitus (pronounced TI-nuh-tuhs) describe it as an incessant ringing in the ears that makes it hard to concentrate or hear. The level varies from loud to mild, and it can be particularly bothersome at night when the world quiets down and the ringing can seem louder.

Who has it?

Tinnitus affects an estimated 60 million people in the United States and is often, though not exclusively, associated with age. People can develop tinnitus from exposure to loud sounds. It is the No. 1 disability among veterans, who are exposed to noise from artillery and gunfire, and published reports show 30-50%  of musicians also have the condition.

Orchestra performance


What causes it?

The causes of tinnitus are not well understood, but we know there are many risk factors for tinnitus. Hearing loss is considered the most significant risk factor. Other factors that increase the risk of developing tinnitus include exposure to loud noise, traumatic brain injury, stress, depression, drinking or smoking, and infection, such as with COVID-19. Many of the tinnitus risk factors are associated with neuroinflammation. For example, hearing loss causes neuroinflammation in the brain auditory pathway.

Seniors have a higher risk of developing tinnitus because of age-related hearing loss and other age-related brain health issues. The best way to prevent tinnitus is to protect your hearing and maintain good brain health.

What can you do if you have it?

Tinnitus can be the most stressful in the months after it starts. Because the precise mechanisms underlying tinnitus are still unknown, it is challenging to treat. There is currently no treatment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for tinnitus, but this does not mean there is no hope.

Women having ear examined

I am a part of a collaborative research team examining neuroinflammation as a target for potential tinnitus treatments. We have found that pharmacologically blocking neuroinflammation prevents noise-induced tinnitus in lab models. A clinical trial is currently ongoing to determine if targeting neuroinflammation may alleviate tinnitus.

Other treatment options researchers are exploring include medication; brain, nerve and skin stimulations; and sound, cognitive and behavioral therapies. All these treatments are in the experimental stages.

See a doctor.

If you suspect you have tinnitus, you should see your doctor to rule out other possibilities such as a brain tumor or vascular disorder.

Man getting his hearing checked

There are some options available to reduce the symptoms of tinnitus, depending on how bothersome it is. If it is too loud, you may choose sound-masking with white noise. If you are anxious, you can choose to participate in cognitive therapy or mindfulness-based therapy. You can also try consuming foods that reduce inflammation and increasing physical activity and, if you have hearing loss, you may consider using a hearing aid. Because hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia and fall-related injury, using a hearing aid could help maintain your overall mental and physical health and well-being.

About the Author: Shaowen Bao, PhD, is an associate professor of neuroscience at the College of Medicine – Tucson. He is the principal investigator at the Department of Physiology Auditory Perception and Learning Lab, which studies sensory processing in physiological and pathological conditions.  . . . more