What does tinnitus sound like?

EEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeEEEeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Annoying right? Welcome to the world of my tinnitus.

But surely all tinnitus is the same? A ringing sound in the ears. Yes, I thought the same when I was first diagnosed — I assumed that I heard what everyone with tinnitus heard.

Hang on a minute, what is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a sound that is perceived in the ear or the head that has no external source. But the sound is very real to the person with tinnitus. The word tinnitus comes from the Latin for ringing.

Some people have a fleeting experience with tinnitus, for others, it is a lifelong companion. I’ve had tinnitus since 2016.

Hearing sounds that no one else can, sounds interesting!

Tinnitus is not a disease or illness. It is not a mental health condition. Tinnitus has a range of triggers including ear infection, exposure to loud noise, stress and changes to your health and wellbeing. Mine was caused by persistent, high levels of stress throughout 2016.

There was a lot of media about COVID-19 and tinnitus — this is something I may revisit once more research has been done — but it’s important to note that tinnitus can appear and peak at times of stress (mine had a spectacular increase during the first few months of lockdown).

Unfortunately, despite 30% of people experiencing tinnitus at some point in their lives, it is underfunded when it comes to research.

So what do you hear?

I hear the annoying list of EEEEEs above — fairly monotone, with the ‘sound’ level increasing during times of stress. In fact, my tinnitus often lets me know I’m stressed before I realise I need to put on Headspace. In that way, it can be quite useful, in comparison to when it’s keeping me awake at 3am, seemingly just for the fun of it.

But you may hear something very different. I recently attended a tinnitus support group where one of the participants had only been diagnosed a couple of months before. Her tinnitus was a whooshing sound that she felt was taking over her head and her life. She was visibly distraught and wanted to know when it would stop. Unfortunately, the answer to that is impossible to know, other than for most people, tinnitus — or your perception of it can improve over time. Her description of her tinnitus was so different to mine — but I recognised in her the stress I’d felt when first diagnosed.

Tinnitus sounds can include ringing, buzzing, humming, whooshing, hearing your heartbeat (pulsatile tinnitus) or even music (musical tinnitus). A family member hears an undulating humming sound — there seems to be no reason behind the type of sound you hear.

You may have noticed that I’ve used the word ‘sound’ rather than ‘noise’ when talking about what I perceive. Noise is described as a sound that is unwanted (to me this includes Jazz, leafblowers and that annoying beep my washing machine makes when it’s finished its cycle). And yes, tinnitus isn’t the easiest thing to live with. But I find using ‘sound’ to describe it takes away the need to fight against it.

I can’t promise you’ll make friends with your tinnitus but anything you can do to encourage acceptance will go a long way to reducing its impact on your life.

If you are hearing or start to hear sounds in your ears or head please speak to your doctor or healthcare professional. Very rarely tinnitus can be a sign of something that will need further investigation. They may also be able to refer you to a hearing therapist (I recommend giving this a go — my therapist has been wonderfully supportive and doesn’t take any shit from me about not doing the exercises). You can also get in touch with the British Tinnitus Association or American Tinnitus Association — both of whom have excellent support networks.

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