A ringing, roaring, clicking or buzzing sound in one or both ears. Tinnitus is not a disease. Rather, it is a symptom of a disruption or defect in the auditory system, which includes the ear, auditory nerve and parts of the brain that process sound. Tinnitus is associated with many health conditions, including the buildup of wax in the ear canal, noise-induced hearing loss, ear and sinus infections, diseases of the heart or blood vessels, Ménière’s disease (a chronic disease of the inner ear), head injuries and brain tumors. It may also be caused by emotional stress and is associated with depression.

No one knows exactly what causes tinnitus, but scientists believe that it could be a result of the brain’s neural circuits trying to adapt to the loss of sensory cells by amping up sensitivity to sound. Damage in the inner ear might change its signaling activity, throwing neural circuits out of balance.

There is no cure for tinnitus, but certain measures may help alleviate it. In people with hearing loss along with tinnitus, hearing aids may make the tinnitus less noticeable. Counseling may help reduce stress and insomnia related to tinnitus. Sound generators—small electronic devices that fit in the ear—produce a soft, pleasant sound to help mask the tinnitus. Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications may improve mood and help people sleep.

Want to learn more about healthy hearing? Read “Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act.”

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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