When the house falls silent in the dead of night, or after the kids have gone to school in the morning, I can hear a high-pitched, occasionally oscillating sound. If I focus on it, the noise grows louder and can even keep me awake. At first, I suspected a gadget in my home was the culprit—perhaps a faulty power adapter. But after no one else could hear it and then consulting my doctor, I realized the ringing in my ears was tinnitus.
“It's a phantom sound generated by the brain,” says Julie Prutsman, a respected audiologist and founder of the Sound Relief Hearing Center. “A lot of people perceive it at ear level. They'll say “my ears are ringing”. But when you try to measure it in a person's ear, there is no signal.”
Tinnitus (correctly pronounced ti-nuh-tuhs or ti-night-us, though Prutsman prefers the former) is a very common condition. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 10 percent of the US adult population has experienced tinnitus lasting at least five minutes in 2020. Most tinnitus cases occur with underlying hearing loss, and the majority of sufferers experience it as ringing, buzzing, or hissing, but it can even sound like music or singing.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Noise exposure is the number one cause of tinnitus, so it’s no surprise that military service members and musicians are frequently afflicted. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that almost half of people aged 12 to 35 years are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged and excessive exposure to loud sounds from personal audio devices and other sources.
“Loud noise exposure results in changes, either to the inner ear, the auditory nerve, or the synapses in the brain,” Prutsman says. “But there are other things that can also cause tinnitus, including wax build-up in the ears, head injuries, hereditary factors, and other changes in health.”
Researchers used to think tinnitus was sound coming from the hair cells in the inner ear, but that was proven untrue. They also suspected the auditory nerve but found that when you sever or cut the nerve, tinnitus gets louder, not softer.
My tinnitus is noticeably worse when I feel stressed or tired, and Prutsman says these are common triggers. Anxiety and depression have also been linked with the condition, and it can even be a side effect of some drugs, including antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and chemotherapy medicines.
Coping With Tinnitus
For most people, tinnitus is short-lived and won’t require treatment. If it’s constant and persistent, lasting for more than a few days, it's a good idea to seek advice and help from a medical professional. It’s often stated that there’s no cure for tinnitus, but it’s more accurate to say there’s no cure that will work for everyone. Research shows there are many effective ways to manage symptoms and reduce the impact on your life.
“Avoid silence and be in a sound-rich environment,” Prutsman says. “A lot of people think that masking would be the right approach to cover up the tinnitus with a louder sound, but my experience has been that you just have to keep making that masking level louder and louder. A low-level sound is more calming and soothing and can mix with the tinnitus to distract the brain.”
I play quiet music if tinnitus is bothering me during the day (I recommend the Lofi Work playlist on Spotify, but your favorite music streaming service likely has a similar offering), and I use the Calm or Rainy Mood app at night (check out our Best Sleep Sounds guide for more recommendations).
Another universally recommended option is the Resound Relief app. It allows you to create soundscapes by layering different sounds and you can set the right and left ear balance to tune the audio per ear. It can be used with any headset. If you have a Resound hearing aid, it’s worth asking about tinnitus sound therapy. Many hearing aid manufacturers offer a built-in sound generator of some sort to alleviate the ringing in your ears.
Beyond soothing sound or sleep and relaxation apps, consider fans, table-top sound generators, smart speakers, sleep headbands, pillows with built-in audio, or even dedicated sleep gadgets like Bose’s SleepBuds II.
“Nothing works for everyone, which is why seeking help can be maddeningly frustrating,” says Joy Onozuka, a tinnitus research and communications officer for the American Tinnitus Association (ATA). “We advise people to start with and explore inexpensive technologies, with free trials or good return policies.”
Finding what works for you can take time. The ATA is an excellent place to learn more about tinnitus, discover possible treatments—including telehealth for audiological and therapeutic care—and find online and local support groups.
The allure of a potential cure is powerful. But, if you are considering a device or a course of treatment, make sure it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration ("FDA-approved") and look for clinical white papers. It's probably best to avoid anything that lacks research or published clinical data.
Two interesting devices that have recently achieved encouraging results are the Neosensory Duo, a vibrating wearable for the wrist, and Lenire, which combines mild electrical pulses to the tongue with sound stimulation. “The science behind them is solid,” Prutsman says. “I think both of those technologies use something called bimodal stimulation, so both touch and sound, with the idea that the two methods will better rewire the brain than just one at a time.”
Sadly, these treatments, and others like them, are prohibitively expensive and often require prolonged use over weeks or even months to get results.
Prevention is better than hunting for a cure. The safe limit for sound is the same for everyone. Ideally, we should avoid noises that are louder than 85 decibels. Sustained exposure to very loud noise will cause damage, but brief unavoidable moments of high volumes, such as a passing fire truck siren, are nothing to worry about, according to Prutsman. Unfortunately, we are often unaware of just how noisy our environment is, but tech can help.
Apple offers a couple of built-in features worth using. If you connect headphones or earbuds to your iPhone or iPad, go to Settings, Control Center, and scroll down to add Hearing. When you next connect your headphones and play audio, you can open the Control Center and tap the ear icon to see the decibel level.
Apple Watch owners should open the Apple Watch app on their iPhone, tap the My Watch tab, then tap Noise, and Noise Threshold. This shows the WHO guidelines on exposure and allows you to set a decibel level, so your Apple Watch will alert you when the average sound level hits or exceeds that threshold for three minutes.
If you want a noise monitoring app, try NIOSH Sound Level Meter from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Sadly, it’s only available for iOS, but many Android apps can measure noise levels, such as Sound Meter. If you’re trying to find quiet places, check out SoundPrint, which lists noise levels for different venues.
“Hearing protection is really important for someone that has tinnitus and doesn't want it to get worse," says Prutsman. "Unfortunately, a lot of people will go to the opposite extreme and overprotect their hearing at safe levels. This can create a worse situation called hyperacusis or hyper-sensitivity to sound.”
This is where your brain can no longer gauge what is too loud. Think of it as a calibration process. Your over-exposure, or lack of exposure, to sound can change your brain's perception of normal levels. So, while you should avoid spending too long in extremely noisy places, you should also take those noise-canceling headphones off now and again. Like so much in life, it’s all about finding the right balance.
Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-Year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!How Bloghouse's neon reign united the internetThe US inches toward building EV batteries at homeThis 22-year-old builds chips in his parents' garageThe best starting words to win at WordleNorth Korean hackers stole $400M in crypto last year👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones