An ambulance with a shrieking siren races down the street, and you put your hands over your ears until the sound subsides. A cat wails in the alleyway outside, so you close the window to shut out the sound. Unfortunately, some people can't escape annoying noise by simply covering their ears or shutting a window, because the sound is inside their heads. The sound may be a ringing, hissing, clicking, buzzing, or crackling. It may come and go, or it may be continuous.
The medical name for this sometimes-tormenting condition is tinnitus, and medical researchers have made substantial headway toward discovering why it happens. When vibrations from the outside world pass through tiny movable bones behind the eardrum, they reach a fluid-filled chamber deep in the inner ear. Within the chamber, thousands of tiny hair cells pick up the vibrations and send electrical impulses through the auditory nerve -- the nerve that allows you to hear -- to the brain. The brain translates these signals into sound that tells the hearer what is going on in the outside world.
Sometimes, however, the hair cells can be damaged in such a way that they continuously send bursts of electricity to the auditory nerve, even when there are no outside noises causing vibrations. In short, these hair cells become permanently turned on, making the brain believe that sound vibrations are entering the ear nonstop.
Among the many causes of hair-cell damage are excessive exposure to loud noise, earwax, middle- or inner-ear infection, a perforated eardrum, fluid accumulation, or stiffening of the middle-ear bones. Allergies, high or low blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, thyroid problems, and injuries to the head and neck may all cause hair-cell damage, as well. Degeneration of the hair cells that occurs as a result of aging may also cause tinnitus.
Tinnitus is not considered life threatening, but it affects nearly 50 million people in the United States, 1 to 2 million of them so severely that they cannot lead normal lives. Even at its worst, however, there are a number of home remedies a person can take to make the situation more bearable.
Stop the noise. As anyone who has ever attended a loud rock concert knows, the noise lingers on long after the melody ceases. But you may be raising your risk for tinnitus every day if you blast the volume of your iPod, Walkman, or other portable music device and find that your ears still ring long after you have removed the headphones. Worse, you could end up with temporary or even permanent hearing loss. Every additional exposure to loud noise damages the tiny hair cells in the inner ear even more, reducing the chance that damaged cells might heal or that the central nervous system might develop a tolerance level to block the noise out over time.
Keep in mind that you don't have to be a fan of loud music to endanger your hearing. Many people, such as factory and construction workers, are exposed to the harmful effects of loud noise on the job. Some hobbies, such as hunting or target shooting, may damage hair cells, too. So turn down the volume of your music, and if your job or hobby exposes you to loud noise, wear adequate hearing protection.
Check your blood pressure. Ringing sounds in the ears can often be traced to high blood pressure. If that's the case, think of the ringing as a warning bell to get a complete physical checkup, since blood pressure that is high enough to produce tinnitus may well be wreaking havoc elsewhere in the body. High blood pressure is a primary risk factor for heart disease that, unlike the ringing in your ears, you should never try to ignore.
Lick the salt habit. Sodium is not always problematic for tinnitus sufferers. If you have an inner-ear disorder such as Meniere's disease or have high blood pressure, however, you should cut out sodium as much as possible. And don't simply put away the saltshaker. Become a careful label reader and look for stealth sources of sodium in your diet, such as snacks, deli meats, frozen foods, and canned soups. Search out foods labeled "sodium free," which means that the item has less than five milligrams of sodium per serving.
Limit aspirin. Aspirin in high doses often causes reversible tinnitus for a day after it is taken. And if aspirin is taken on a regular basis -- say, for arthritis or chronic pain -- there's a risk of damage to the hair cells in the ear, although it may still depend to some extent on how much is taken on a regular basis (damage is less likely in those who take a baby aspirin each day for their heart, for example). For a list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics, click here.
Try to limit your intake of aspirin to see if your tinnitus improves (if the aspirin has been prescribed by a doctor, however, check with the doctor first). Be sure to check labels on any other over the-counter medications you take, too, since many of them contain aspirin. If you take aspirin for a chronic conditions, talk to your doctor about alternate medications.
Avoid temporary "kicks." Chemical stimulants in foods, beverages, and drugs excite the hair cells in your ear, making them work overtime for no reason. Limit caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and many soft drinks, and eliminate tobacco and other unhealthy substances such as marijuana and cocaine.
Work it out. If poor circulation is the cause of ringing in your ears, a little exercise, such as a brisk daily walk, may help hush the din. Be sure to get your doctor's approval and advice first, though.
Save time for rest. Becoming overly fatigued can lower your resistance to colds and flu, which can bring on swelling in the inner ear that can aggravate or even trigger tinnitus.
Don't worry. Coping with ringing ears may be maddening at times, but try to keep in mind that tinnitus is not a serious, life-threatening condition. If you constantly focus on the problem, you are likely to become anxious and stressed out, which will only make the noise seem worse. If necessary, look into stress-fighting techniques that can help you calm your mind and your body.
Mask it with a tape -- or CD, DVD, radio, or other device. Ringing in the ears can often be countered by a competing sound. Try playing enjoyable background music at a low volume, or turn your FM radio dial between two stations to create soft static. These outside sounds may be more pleasant -- or at least more bearable -- than the internal ones.
If you have more severe tinnitus, you might be able to mask the problem by wearing an electronic device that looks like a hearing aid and generates a competing but more pleasant sound. An audiologist (the professional who tests hearing and fits hearing aids) can set the masking device to bring some measure of relief without interfering with conversational hearing. Maskers, however, seem to help only a few people. Wearing the device can be bothersome, so many people choose to use it only at night to help them fall asleep.