Most people describe tinnitus as a buzzing or ringing sound. But that description, though useful, is woefully insufficient. Tinnitus doesn’t always manifest in one of those two ways. Rather, this particular hearing ailment can make a veritable symphony of different sounds. And that’s important to note.
Because as useful as that “buzzing and ringing” shorthand may be, such a limited description could make it challenging for some people to recognize their tinnitus symptoms. If Barb from down the street hears only whooshing or crashing in her ears, it may not even occur to her that tinnitus is to blame. So having a more thorough notion of what tinnitus sounds like can be good for everyone, Barb included.
A list of sounds you may hear with tinnitus
Generally speaking, tinnitus is the perception of noise in the ears. Sometimes this noise actually exists (this is called objective tinnitus) and sometimes it’s an artifact of your ears (that is, the sound doesn’t truly exist and can’t be heard by others–that’s called subjective tinnitus). The type of tinnitus you’re dealing with will likely (but not always) have an impact on the sound you hear. And there are a lot of possible sounds you could hear:
- Ringing: We’ll start with the most common sound, a ringing in the ears. This is often a high pitched ring or whine. (Sometimes this sound is even referred to as a “tone.”) Ringing is probably what most people think about when they imagine tinnitus.
- Buzzing: Sometimes it’s not ringing you hear, but a buzzing sound. This buzzing can even sound like an insect or a cicada (which, yes, is a type of insect… but you get the idea).
- High-pitch whistle: You know that sound your tea kettle makes when it starts boiling? Sometimes tinnitus can cause you to hear that particular high-pitched squeal. (Not surprisingly, this one can be quite unpleasant.)
- Static: In some cases, your tinnitus may sound like static. Whether that’s high energy or low energy static varies from person to person.
- Electric motor: Your vacuum cleaner has a very distinct sound in part because of its electric motor. Some people with tinnitus hear a similar sound when their tinnitus flares up.
- Screeching: You know that sound of grinding metal? Maybe you hear it when your neighbors are working on construction projects in their garage. But it’s the kind of sound that often comes up when experiencing tinnitus.
- Roaring: This one is often described as “roaring waves,” or even simply “the ocean.” It may sound calming at first, but the reality is that the sound is much more overpowering than the gently lapping waves you might imagine.
- Whooshing: Often experienced by individuals with objective tinnitus, a rhythmic whooshing sound in the ears is often caused by circulation through blood vessels around the ear. With this form of tinnitus, you’re essentially hearing your own heartbeat.
This list is not exhaustive, but it certainly starts to give you an idea of just how many possible sounds someone with tinnitus may hear.
Change over time
It’s also entirely possible for one patient to experience multiple tinnitus-related sounds. Brandon, for example, spent most of last week hearing a ringing sound. He got together with friends at a loud restaurant last night and is now hearing a loud static noise. It’s not uncommon for the sound you hear from tinnitus to change in this way–and it may change often.
The reason for the change isn’t always well understood (mostly because the causes of tinnitus aren’t always well understood).
Canceling out tinnitus
Tinnitus treatments will typically take two possible approaches: masking the noise or helping your brain figure out how to ignore the noise. And in either case, that means helping you identify and get familiar with the sounds of your tinnitus, whatever they may be.