Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Ear Ringing or Buzzing



David M. Kaylie

, MS, MD, Duke University Medical Center

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
Click here for the Professional Version
Topic Resources

Ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is noise originating in the ear rather than in the environment. It is a symptom and not a specific disease. Tinnitus is very common—10 to 15% of people experience it to some degree.

The noise heard by people with tinnitus may be a buzzing, ringing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound and is often associated with hearing loss. Some people hear more complex sounds that may be different at different times. These sounds are more noticeable in a quiet environment and when people are not concentrating on something else. Thus, tinnitus tends to be most disturbing to people when they are trying to sleep. However, the experience of tinnitus is highly individual. Some people are very disturbed by their symptoms, whereas others find them quite bearable.

Subjective tinnitus is by far the most common type. It is caused by abnormal activity in the part of the brain responsible for processing sound (auditory cortex). Doctors do not fully understand how this abnormal activity develops.

Objective tinnitus is much less common. It represents actual noise created by structures near the ear. Other people can sometimes hear the sounds of objective tinnitus if they listen closely.

Causes of Ear Ringing or Buzzing

Subjective tinnitus

More than 75% of ear-related disorders include tinnitus as a symptom, and people who have hearing loss, regardless of cause, often develop tinnitus. The most common causes of subjective tinnitus include

Other causes of tinnitus include middle ear infections, disorders that block the ear canal (such as an external ear infection [external otitis], excessive ear wax, or foreign bodies), problems with the eustachian tube (which connects the middle ear and the back of the nose) due to allergies or other causes of obstruction, otosclerosis (a disorder of excess bone growth in the middle ear), and temporomandibular disorders. An uncommon but serious cause is a vestibular schwannoma, a noncancerous (benign) tumor of part of the nerve leading from the inner ear.

Objective tinnitus

Objective tinnitus usually involves noise from blood vessels near the ear. In such cases, the sound comes with each beat of the pulse (pulsatile). Causes include

  • Turbulent flow through the carotid artery or jugular vein

  • Certain middle ear tumors that are rich in blood vessels

  • Malformed blood vessels of the membrane covering the brain

The most common noise is the sound of rapid or turbulent blood flow in major vessels of the neck. This abnormal blood flow may occur because of a reduced red blood cell count (anemia) or a blockage of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and may be worsened in people with poorly controlled high blood pressure (hypertension). Some small tumors of the middle ear called glomus tumors are rich in blood vessels. Although the tumors are small, they are very near the sound-receiving structures of the ear, and blood flow through them can sometimes be heard (only in one ear). Sometimes, blood vessel malformations that involve abnormal connections between arteries and veins (arteriovenous malformations) develop in the membrane covering the brain (the dura). If these malformations are near the ear, the person sometimes can hear blood flowing through them.

Less commonly, spasms of muscles of the palate or the small muscles of the middle ear cause clicking sounds. These sounds do not follow the beat of the pulse. Such spasms often have no known cause but may be due to tumors, head injury, or diseases that affect the covering of nerves (for example, multiple sclerosis).

Evaluation of Ear Ringing or Buzzing

Not all tinnitus requires evaluation by a doctor. The following information can help people decide whether a doctor's evaluation is needed and help them know what to expect during the evaluation.

Warning signs

Certain symptoms and characteristics are cause for concern. They include

  • Tinnitus in only one ear

  • Any neurologic symptoms (other than hearing loss), particularly difficulty with balance or walking, but also vertigo or difficulty seeing, speaking, swallowing, and/or talking

When to see a doctor

People with warning signs should see a doctor right away. People without warning signs in whom tinnitus recently developed should call their doctor, as should people with pulsatile tinnitus. Most people with tinnitus and no warning signs have had tinnitus for a long time but should see their doctor about it if they have not already done so.

What the doctor does

In people with tinnitus, doctors first ask questions about the person's symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination may suggest a cause of the tinnitus and the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Causes and Features of Tinnitus).

During the medical history, doctors ask about the following:

  • The nature of the tinnitus, including whether it is in one or both ears and whether it is constant or pulsatile

  • Whether the person has any neurologic symptoms

  • Whether the person has been exposed to loud noise or to drugs that can affect the ears

During the physical examination, doctors focus on examining the ears (including hearing) and the neurologic system. They also listen with a stethoscope over and near the person's ear and on the neck for sounds of objective tinnitus.


Some Causes and Features of Tinnitus


Common Features*


Subjective tinnitus (typically a constant tone and sometimes accompanied by some degree of hearing loss)

Acoustic trauma (noise-induced hearing loss)

History of occupational or recreational exposure to noise

Hearing loss

Doctor’s examination alone‡

Aging (presbycusis)

Progressive hearing loss, often with family history

Doctor’s examination alone‡

Barotrauma (ear damage due to sudden pressure change)

Clear history of ear damage

Doctor’s examination alone‡

Brain tumors (such as vestibular schwannoma or meningioma) or disorders such as multiple sclerosis or stroke

Tinnitus and often hearing loss in only one ear

Sometimes other neurologic abnormalities


Gadolinium-enhanced MRI

Drugs (particularly aspirin, aminoglycoside antibiotics, certain diuretics, and some chemotherapy drugs, including cisplatin)

Tinnitus beginning in both ears shortly after starting use of drug

Except with aspirin, hearing loss also possible

With aminoglycoside antibiotics, possible dizziness and problems with balance

Doctor’s examination alone‡

Eustachian tube dysfunction

Often a long history of decreased hearing and frequent colds, and problems clearing ears with air travel or other pressure change

May be in one or both ears (often one ear more of a problem than the other)


Infections (such as otitis media, labyrinthitis, meningitis, or syphilis)

History of such infection

Sometimes doctor’s examination alone‡

Sometimes other tests (for example, a lumbar puncture if meningitis is suspected)

Repeated episodes of hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or fullness in one ear and severe vertigo

Vestibular testing

Gadolinium-enhanced MRI to rule out vestibular schwannoma

Obstruction of ear canal (due to wax, foreign object, or external otitis)

Only one ear affected

Visible abnormalities seen during ear examination, including discharge with external otitis

Doctor’s examination alone‡

Objective tinnitus (typically pulsatile or intermittent)

Artery and vein (arteriovenous) malformations of the dura

Constant, pulsatile tinnitus in only one ear

Usually no other symptoms

Possible humming or pulsing noise over the skull heard during examination

Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), CT angiography CTA), or conventional angiography

Spasm of muscles of the palate or of the middle ear

Irregular clicking or mechanical-sounding noise

Possibly other neurologic symptoms (when the cause of the spasm is a neurologic disease such as multiple sclerosis)

Possible movement of the palate and/or eardrum when symptoms occur

Sometimes MRI


Turbulent blood flow in carotid artery or jugular vein

Possible humming or pulsing noise heard over the neck during examination

The noise may stop when the doctor pushes on the jugular vein and/or has people turn their head to the side

Sometimes doctor’s examination alone

Sometimes CT venogram and CT angiography

Vascular middle ear tumors (such as glomus tumors)

Constant, pulsatile tinnitus in only one ear

Possible pulsing noise heard over the affected ear during examination

Sometimes doctors can see the tumor behind the eardrum when they look in the ear canal with a light



Angiography (usually done before surgery)

* Features include symptoms and results of the doctor's examination. Features mentioned are typical but not always present.

† Although a doctor's examination is always done, it is mentioned in this column only if the diagnosis can sometimes be made by the doctor's examination alone, without any testing.

‡ Most people should have a full hearing test (audiometry).

CT = computed tomography; MRI = magnetic resonance imaging.


Possible tests for people with tinnitus include

Most people should have a formal hearing test done by either the doctor or a hearing specialist (audiologist). People with tinnitus in only one ear and hearing loss should have gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). People with pulsatile tinnitus often require magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), computerized tomography angiography (CTA), or conventional angiography.

Treatment of Ear Ringing or Buzzing

Attempts to identify and treat the disorder causing tinnitus are often unsuccessful. However, correcting any hearing loss (for example, with a hearing aid) relieves tinnitus in about half of people.

Treatment of stress and other mental conditions (such as depression) may help. Many people are reassured if they learn that their tinnitus is not caused by a serious disorder. Caffeine and other stimulants can worsen tinnitus, so people should try to avoid these.

Various techniques can help make tinnitus tolerable, although the ability to tolerate it varies from person to person. Many people find that background sound helps mask the tinnitus and helps them fall asleep. Some people play background music. Other people use a tinnitus masker, which is a device worn like a hearing aid that produces a constant level of neutral sounds. For the profoundly deaf, an implant in the cochlea (the organ of hearing) may reduce tinnitus but is only done for people with severe to profound hearing loss in both ears. If these standard techniques are not helpful, people may want to seek treatment in clinics that specialize in the treatment of tinnitus.

Key Points about Ear Ringing or Buzzing

  • Most tinnitus is due to causes that are not dangerous, for example, exposure to loud noise, aging, Meniere disease, and use of certain drugs.

  • In many cases, the cause is unknown.

  • Findings that are of concern include tinnitus accompanied by any neurologic symptoms and tinnitus in only one ear (particularly when accompanied by hearing loss, dizziness, and/or balance difficulty).

  • Tinnitus rarely can be stopped, but certain techniques help people manage their symptoms effectively.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
No US brand name
NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version


Others also read

Test your knowledge

Acoustic Neuroma
An acoustic neuroma, also called a vestibular schwannoma, is a noncancerous (benign) tumor originating in the cells that wrap around the nerve involved in. Which of the following is NOT an early symptom of an acoustic neuroma?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID

Also of Interest

Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID