I have been having this buzzing noise in my ear since yesterday. I have never had it before. At first, I thought an insect was trapped inside my ear. What is this buzzing noise?

This buzzing noise is called tinnitus. It is pronounced as TIN-ih-tus. It is actually the perception (not real) of a noise in your ears. Some people hear ringing, clipping, hissing, chirping, roaring, whistling, or even other sounds instead.

It is a very common condition. It is estimated that as many as one in five people have experienced it in their lifetimes. This noise can occur intermittently or be continuous. For some people, it is very loud. For others, it is in a low decibel.

It is sometimes worse when there is very little background noise, such as at night when you are trying to sleep. For some people, the noise seems to come in sync with the beating of your heart. This is called pulsatile tinnitus.

For some people, having tinnitus is an annoyance that they can live with and are only infrequently aware of. For others, it is a terrible inconvenience that can cause them to take medical leave, have sleepless nights or suffer psychological distress.

In summary, tinnitus varies very much from one person to the next.

Is tinnitus a disease? I am very worried.

No. Tinnitus is not a disease. It is a symptom of some diseases, pretty much in the way that a fever is a symptom of something else or how chest pain can be attributed to many causes.

There are two types of tinnitus:

• Subjective tinnitus: Tinnitus that only you can hear. This is the most common type. It can be caused by ear problems in the outer, middle or inner ear, or the hearing (auditory) nerves. It can even be caused by the part of your brain that interprets sound.

• Objective tinnitus: Tinnitus that even your doctor can hear when he or she does an ear examination. This is a very rare type that may be caused by a blood vessel problem, a middle ear bone condition or muscle contractions.

That does not sound reassuring. Will I go deaf?

That is indeed the chief worry of people who suffer from tinnitus. But, no. Tinnitus itself does not cause hearing loss. Nor does hearing loss cause tinnitus. Tinnitus is not usually a symptom of some serious disease.

However, up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some sort of associated hearing loss that is caused by loud noises.

Then what causes tinnitus?

There are many causes:

• Prolonged exposure to loud noises – This is by far the most common cause of tinnitus. Persistent loud noise can cause permanent damage to the cells in our cochlea, which is a spiral or snail-shaped hearing organ inside our inner ear.

Many people who experience this have jobs that are usually associated with loud noise, such as rock musicians, carpenters, pilots, street workers who repair things using heavy machinery, people who use chain saws and guns, etc.

If you have been exposed just one time to a particularly loud noise, this can also cause tinnitus.

• If your ear is blocked due to ear wax, infections or any reason at all (such as a tumour in your ear canal). Ear wax blockage is more common than you think!

• Ageing – when you grow older, your cochlea can deteriorate.

• Certain medications – aspirin, some types of antibiotics, sedatives, antidepressants, and quinines.

• Otosclerosis – a disease that can result in the stiffening of the small sound-conductive bones of the middle ear.

• Neck or jaw problems, such as temporomandibular joint syndrome, or any previous injury – which can happen if you have been involved in a fight or play rough contact sports that cause damage to your jaw.

• Others like high blood pressure, blood circulation problems, anaemia, autoimmune disease and diabetes.

I realised that my tinnitus gets worse when I drink red wine. Is this common?

Yes. Tinnitus can worsen in some people when they drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee or eat certain foods. You have to determine what worsens your tinnitus and avoid these triggers. Stress and tiredness also worsens tinnitus.

How can I treat my tinnitus? It is really bothering me. I can’t go to sleep at night easily.

You need to go to the right type of specialist, such as an ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon. Once he or she finds out the cause of your tinnitus, it can be treated. However, in a lot of cases, the tinnitus remains after treating the cause. And if the cause is exposure to loud noises, the damage has already been done.

Sometimes, the tinnitus goes away by itself. But there are some medications such as anti-anxiety agents that can help, and also masking devices, which are like hearing aids that play a sound that is more pleasant than your tinnitus.

There are also various techniques that you can utilise to “screen out” the tinnitus so that you won’t pay it any more attention than the hum of an air-conditioner.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.