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      Causes of tinnitus

      Some people worry that tinnitus may be a sign of a serious illness, but this is very rarely the case - it's most commonly caused by changes that take place in the cochlea.

      Exactly how and why tinnitus occurs isn’t yet fully understood and research is ongoing. But it’s thought that, in most cases, tinnitus is the sound of activity within the cochlea (the hearing organ in the inner ear), which can generally be heard by everyone in a silent environment. This type of tinnitus is called subjective tinnitus, and only you can hear it.

      This noise isn’t usually heard because:

      • normal environmental sounds mask it
      • the brain ‘filters out’ sounds that don’t have meaning to you – for example, you may not notice the sound of traffic in the background, but you’d notice a baby crying.

      Find out what tinnitus sound like by listening to our audio file.

      Tinnitus may be caused if any, or all, of the following happen:

      • changes take place in the cochlea as a result of a disorder, such as hearing loss or Ménière's disease
      • you’re in a quiet environment, or have a hearing loss, so you don’t hear the everyday noise that could mask the tinnitus sounds
      • the brain’s systems that control how you react to sound either fail to filter out the sound of activity in your cochlea, or enhance it so that your brain picks up the sounds. How and why this happens is not fully understood.

      What can tinnitus be linked to?

      Most commonly, tinnitus is associated with sensorineural hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is caused by damage to the cochlea or hearing nerve, or both. Age-related ‘wear and tear’ in the inner ear is the most common cause of sensorineural hearing loss. It can also be caused by exposure to loud noise and Ménière's disease.

      Less commonly, tinnitus is associated with disorders causing conductive hearing loss. This type of hearing loss occurs when sounds can’t pass freely into the inner ear – usually because of a blockage or problem in the outer or middle part of the ear. Disorders causing conductive hearing loss include an ear wax blockage and otosclerosis.

      For some people there is no recognisable link for their tinnitus. But in some cases, tinnitus is associated with:

      • exposure to loud noise
      • emotional stress
      • certain drugs, such as high doses of antibiotics or aspirin
      • ear infections
      • ear, head or neck injuries
      • neurological disorders – including acoustic neuroma (a non-cancerous type of brain tumour)
      • metabolic disorders – including hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and diabetes.

      You can find out more out about the causes of tinnitus and therapies from our factsheets.

      Tinnitus in detail