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What causes tinnitus?

Tinnitus is not a disease or an illness. It’s usually a symptom of a problem within your hearing pathway and there may be several underlying causes.

We know that tinnitus can be linked to:

However, for many people with tinnitus, the cause isn't clear. They may never have experienced any of these things.

As there are so many factors that can lead to, or worsen, tinnitus, there is a lot of ongoing research into the exact cause of the condition.

You can download a free PDF viewer(external link, opens new window) from the Adobe website.

A diagram showing a cross section of the ear.

The hearing pathway

To understand what happens when you have tinnitus, you first need to know how the hearing pathway works.
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Audiologist doing an ear canal inspection.

Hearing loss and tinnitus

There are three main parts of the ear: the outer, middle and inner ear. Together, they are responsible for receiving sound waves and turning them into electrical signals.
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People dancing to music in a club.

Exposure to loud noise and tinnitus

Prolonged exposure to loud noise can damage the tiny, hair-like sensory cells (hair cells) within the cochlear, which is a fluid-filled chamber in the inner ear.
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A woman stands deep in thought, holding a mug of tea.

Stress and tinnitus

It’s unlikely that stress can actually cause tinnitus, though research has shown that there is a strong link between them.
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A researcher carrying out testing in a lab.

Drugs and tinnitus

Certain drugs may cause damage to the inner ear, resulting in hearing loss, balance problems and tinnitus.
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Tinnitus Information Line - telephone 0808 808 6666 (freephone)

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