What is tinnitus?

Monday 2nd February

Find out what lies behind this common condition and why we need to be aware of exposure to loud noise.

Tinnitus is a relatively common condition where noises are heard in the head and/or ears. The symptoms may be mild to severe and will often affect people's sleep and concentration levels. Tinnitus can be distressing, and may even lead to anxiety and depression. Currently, there is no cure, although there are certainly treatments that can help.

“We believe tinnitus affects 10 percent of the UK adult population,” says Nic Wray, communications manager at the British Tinnitus Association (BTA) “However, as tinnitus is more common in the over-55s, and as the population ages, it is likely that the numbers of people affected will increase.”

At the same time, there's been a noticeable increase in hearing problems such as tinnitus, as well as hearing loss, caused by exposure to noise. This can be due to loud volumes in the workplace, for example, or at music venues.

“Research has indicated that young people especially are unaware of the risk factors in respect to tinnitus,” says Nic, quoting a 2013 study which revealed that 74.9 percent of high school students had temporary noise-induced tinnitus, and 18.3 percent had permanent tinnitus. Worryingly, less than five percent took steps to protect their hearing.

“Although this research was conducted by a Belgian researcher, it’s likely that similar attitudes and behaviours are apparent in British young people,” she adds. And that is precisely why the BTA is working hard to address the issue and uses Tinnitus Awareness Week each February to spread the word about the risks associated with exposure to loud noise. The charity also steps up its activities around the summer music festival season and Guy Fawkes night; both peak times for noise exposure.

Tinnitus is associated with...

  • Hearing loss: the delicate hair cells in the inner ear may reduce in number due to wear and tear as people age. This gradual change can cause hearing loss, which makes tinnitus more noticeable as it is not masked by external sound.
  • Exposure to loud noise: hair cells can also be damaged by exposure to loud noise, which could generate tinnitus.
  • Stress and anxiety: it is not always clear whether stress causes the onset of tinnitus. However, tinnitus may be more noticeable if you are anxious or stressed.
  • Ear infections: middle ear infections can cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Symptoms will normally be temporary, but it is important to have the underlying infection treated by a GP.

Further reading

For more information about tinnitus and Tinnitus Awareness Week, and to read people's first-hand experiences, visit the BTA website.

You're able to read up on a number of different medical conditions on the Healthier You section of the benenden website.

If you are a benenden member and have concerns about your hearing, you can speak to a GP 24/7 using our exclusive advice line.