While tinnitus and hearing loss can be connected, they are, in fact, two different conditions. Hearing loss refers to the loss of hearing, either complete or partial, and can result from an inner, middle or outer ear issue. Tinnitus, on the other hand, is a condition that gives the perception of sound – usually a ringing or buzzing – in the head or ears when no physical noise is present.
According to the New Zealand Hearing Industry Association, hearing loss affects 10% of New Zealand's population – around 500,000 people. Tinnitus, on the other hand, affects up to 240,000 New Zealanders, and rather than being a disease itself, it is usually a symptom of a problem within the ear or auditory system.
If you’ve noticed a ringing or buzzing sound in your ears or head, but there’s nothing in your environment making the noise, you may have tinnitus. One of the most common causes of tinnitus is exposure to loud noise, such as in the workplace (such as a construction site) or at a sporting event or a loud concert.
Hearing loss, earwax build-up, trauma or injury to the head, ear infection, and inflammation can also cause tinnitus. It is also one of the more common symptoms of Ménière's disease, a rare hearing disorder characterised by bouts of vertigo.
There are also certain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, some antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, anti-malaria medications, and antidepressants, that can cause tinnitus – so ensure you speak to your doctor before taking new medications so you are aware of any possible side effects.
Tinnitus is a symptom of damaged hearing characterised by the perception of certain sounds where no noise exists. The word ‘tinnitus’ comes from the Latin for ‘tinkling or ringing like a bell’ – but while it’s commonly thought of as a ‘ringing’ sound in the ears, tinnitus can also sound like a humming, hissing, clicking or whistling sound, or even a roaring, buzzing or whooshing. You may hear these sounds in one or both ears, and they could be loud or faint.
Most people who experience chronic tinnitus also have some degree of hearing loss, but while tinnitus is more common in those who have damaged hearing, not everyone who has hearing loss will experience tinnitus. Similarly, you can have tinnitus without hearing loss – and it’s not known why tinnitus occurs in some people with hearing loss and not others.
One of the most common causes of tinnitus and hearing loss is prolonged noise exposure. Exposure (particularly repeated exposure) to loud noises increases the risk of both, and many sounds we consider everyday ‘leisure noise’ commonly cause chronic hearing loss and tinnitus.
Loud music played at concerts and nightclubs, the rumble of jet planes taking off, and even turning up the volume in our earphones or car stereo can all damage the delicate hair cells in the inner ear, which are vital to the auditory system's functioning.
safeguard your hearing.
Using earplugs or safety earmuffs if you’re going to be exposed to sounds of over 80 decibels for an extended period is a good place to start. For context, that’s about the level of noise you’d expect in a busy restaurant or in heavy traffic.
It’s also a good idea to avoid standing near speakers if you’re listening to live music, and when listening to music through headphones, make sure the volume isn’t turned up to more than 80 per cent of its capacity (and for no longer than 90 minutes a day).
If you think you may be experiencing tinnitus or hearing loss, it’s important to visit your healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can help determine the cause of your hearing loss or tinnitus and help you implement strategies to prevent further damage to your hearing, and to help you manage the condition.
Tinnitus is not the same as hearing loss, but the two are very closely associated, particularly when it comes to noise-induced hearing loss. There is no way to reverse tinnitus or hearing loss, and protecting your hearing from prolonged exposure to loud noise is key. If you notice any changes in your hearing or a persistent buzzing or ringing in your ears, contact your nearest Bay Audiology clinic for a check-up.