Tinnitus can be described as ‘the feeling of hearing noises when noise is not present’. It can also be described as ‘ringing in the ears’, although some people hear a buzzing or humming noise rather than ringing.

Tinnitus can affect one ear or both and can be there all the time or come and go. Although it is more common in older people, children can develop tinnitus too, although usually for different reasons.

What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is thought to be a caused by a problem in the way the brain interprets sound

The ear consists of three parts, the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Sound waves enter the ear canal and cause the eardrum to vibrate. The sound then passes through the middle ear via the three small bones of hearing (ossicles) on to the inner ear, which is filled with fluid. The movement of the fluid in the cochlea stimulates the hair cells inside it to trigger a nerve impulse, which is carried to the brain by the auditory nerve. The brain then interprets these nerve impulses as sound

Tinnitus in adults is most commonly caused by exposure to loud noise, such as planes taking off or attending loud music concerts. In children, it seems to develop following some ear infections or ear wax impaction. Tinnitus can also be a side effect of some medicines, usually those used to treat some types of cancer and leukaemia, although other medicines can be linked to tinnitus as well.

Ear - internal
Ear - internal

What are the signs and symptoms of tinnitus?

The main symptom of tinnitus is the ringing, buzzing or humming noise, although the actual sound heard varies from person to person. Children may think that hearing these sound is normal, so may not say anything. The noise may seem to get worse during periods of anxiety and may lead to difficulty in sleeping.

How is tinnitus diagnosed?

There is no specific test to diagnose tinnitus. Instead, the doctor will ask lots of questions about when the noise started, how often it happens, how loud it is and how much it is affecting everyday life. They may make a referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or audiologist to check a child’s ear function and hearing.

How is tinnitus treated?

Treatment does not remove the noise but can help reduce its impact on everyday life. ‘Masking’ the noise with other quiet noises such as the radio at low volume can help some people by diverting their attention away from the tinnitus noise. Commercial ‘sound generators’ that make a low humming noise can also help. Other forms of treatment aim to reduce the stress caused by the tinnitus noise and can include relaxation therapies, anti-anxiety medicines or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

What happens next?

Children seem to ‘grow out’ of tinnitus as they get older so it should not be a permanent problem. The treatments outlined above are quite successful in reducing the impact of tinnitus but it may take some time to find the right treatment for a child’s tinnitus.

Compiled by: 
The Audiology department in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group.
Last review date: 
June 2013

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