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Are your ears ringing? What does it mean?

A ringing sound in your ears can be torturous — it’s difficult to concentrate and it’s a distracting sound that only you can hear! This frustrating condition is experienced by nearly 50 million people in the U.S. and is known as tinnitus. Tinnitus can come and go, may affect one or both ears, and sounds may range from ringing to buzzing, clicking, or humming. Most often, tinnitus is caused by an underlying condition.

No matter what sounds you hear and how often you hear them, suffering from tinnitus has real impacts: it can make you fatigued, stressed, depressed, anxious, or irritable. If you’re experiencing ringing in your ears, here are six reasons it might be happening, as well as what you can do about it.

1. Hearing loss

The sound created by tinnitus can be a sign of hearing loss. Loud noises can damage the small hairs and nerve cells in your inner ear, making them send incorrect and confusing electrical signals to your brain. The ringing sound is a result of that damage and can be addressed by a doctor.

2. Ear infection

The same hairs and nerve cells that are damaged during hearing loss can be affected by infections in the ear. Fluid buildups, earwax, and other symptoms of an ear infection can all change the pressure in your ear, which can cause tinnitus. A trip to the doctor can help clean out earwax buildup or treat an infection.

3. Injury

Head or neck injuries can affect the inner ear — usually on one side (where the trauma occurred). If you’re experiencing tinnitus following an injury, it could be related. Likewise, an injury to the ear, such as a trauma or a single loud noise or pressure change, can damage the inner ear and result in tinnitus. In all of these instances, you should see a health care professional for treatment.

4. Medication

There are some drugs that are known to cause tinnitus — specifically antidepressants, some antibiotics, cancer drugs, water pills, and antimalarials. Symptoms will typically increase or decrease with use of the medication. If you think your medication is causing tinnitus, speak with your doctor before making any changes.

5. Physical problems

While less common, it’s possible for tinnitus to be caused by a physical problem in your inner ear, such as Eustachian tube dysfunction, changes in your ear bone, or TMJ. These problems are much less common, but each warrants a trip to the doctor.

6. Chronic conditions

There are a number of chronic conditions that have been associated with tinnitus, such as diabetes, migraines, thyroid problems, and autoimmune disorders. If you suffer from any of these, it’s possible you’re also experiencing ringing in your ears.

While anyone can suffer from tinnitus, exposure to loud noises increases your risk for the condition. If your ears are ringing or you’re worried about tinnitus, reduce the volume when listening to music, the television, or any other forms of media, and use hearing protection while participating in loud activities.

There are many treatments available for tinnitus, ranging from addressing the underlying cause (such as through hearing aids or medication changes) to noise suppression that helps manage symptoms. If your ears are ringing for more than a week, if you’re experiencing other symptoms such as depression, or if your daily life is bothered by tinnitus, it’s time to make an appointment with a doctor and identify the underlying issue.