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November 8th, 2010
10:04 AM ET

Why do I hear whistling in both of my ears?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Question asked by Chris of Tewksbury, New Jersey:

I am a 62-year-old male. For over a year now I have been having a whistling in both of my ears. It goes on 24/7 and I am at the end of my rope. Please help me.

Expert answer

Thanks for your question. Having a ringing sound in the ears (known as tinnitus) is very common and affects about 10 to 15 percent of the population. It is usually short-lived and can get better or eventually go away on its own. This ringing may occur after hearing loud noises, such as going to a concert.

However, a noise in the ears that lasts for longer periods can have many different causes and may be extremely annoying as well as difficult to treat. To better help you with this aggravating situation, I consulted Dr. Aaron Rogers, an otolaryngologist (ear/nose/throat specialist) in Atlanta, who shared the following information about long-term tinnitus and possible treatments.

Rogers reports that the most common type of tinnitus consists of a high-pitched steady buzzing or ringing in the ears. Usually it is always there but gets louder in quiet situations or with anxiety and tends to be present on both sides. This type is thought to be "idiopathic" (meaning there is no known cause) and is often found accompanying a hearing loss, especially of high-frequency sounds.

The best we can tell, this kind of tinnitus actually originates in the brain, not the ears, so that a person perceives a ringing noise that other people cannot hear. One way to think of it is that the brain is trying to fill in what the ears are no longer hearing.

Other types of tinnitus may involve a pulsing, clicking, or low-pitched roaring in the ears. These types are relatively rare but are sometimes associated with middle ear muscle spasms, high pressure of the fluid in the brain, or even blood vessel malformations.

Causes of tinnitus may also include problems with the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) area and muscles in the head and face. Medications such as high-dose aspirin therapy can create tinnitus which may be reversible once the medicine is stopped. Insomnia can make tinnitus worse in some people, and severe tinnitus may also be associated with depression and stress.

Having an evaluation by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can be helpful to test for hearing loss and inspecting the ear anatomy for any suspicious things like a hair or other foreign body in the ear canal or a hole in the ear drum. The specialist can also check for some of the more rare causes of tinnitus and may recommend an imaging study of the head.

The treatment for tinnitus depends on the underlying cause. A hearing aid can be helpful if hearing loss is involved. Dealing with depression and insomnia are also advised. One treatment for common idiopathic tinnitus is called "masking," which gives a distractor noise (such as a white noise machine, ceiling fan, radio in the corner of a room, etc.) to the ears.

For people who do not respond to regular masking, an intensive treatment called tinnitus retraining therapy may be recommended. This therapy involves custom noise-generating devices (which simulate the tinnitus or produce white noise) that are "always on" in an attempt to retrain the brain to block out a particular sound. Biofeedback, acupuncture, and cognitive-behavioral therapy may also be helpful.

I hope you will consult with your physician for the best treatment for your condition. Good luck!


soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. larrywi

    I have a hearing deficency due to 3 years in VN in artillery, I have have experienced Tinitus for many years now, and it doesn't bother me. The sound I hear is that of what sounds you would hear in a summer evening by a pond. Sounds like crickets, and frogs, for the most part, all of which are reminicient of my boyhood years, and living in the country. When I use my hearing aids the tinitus subsides somewhat.

    November 8, 2010 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      Hooah, Larry. My hearing loss is primarily due to military duty as well. My tinnitus is more like a football referree blowing whistles in my ears. Hearing aids do help a great deal, but I have to take them out to go to sleep and then the tinnitus really sets in.

      November 8, 2010 at 10:48 | Report abuse |
    • Dell

      You're not alone with the "crickets and frogs" sounds, Larry. I've experienced exactly the same sounds (for the same reasons, too) for many years. I always thought of the sounds as what one might hear standing in a swamp at midnight. Obviously, I've become accustomed to this sensation and it's more a curiosity for me in my old age. It would be nice if it went away, but it's nowhere near as debilitating as some of the things my fellow Army buddies are suffering, so I won't complain.

      November 8, 2010 at 12:29 | Report abuse |
    • evoc

      Crickets and frogs exactly! I'd never described it before as other than crickets, but a pond at night is accurate. Mine came from office work where fire detectors were set too loudly, and went off frequently for drills.

      November 8, 2010 at 13:22 | Report abuse |
  2. Dave

    I suffer from moderate tinnitus related to hearing loss and it can really cause problems. Falling asleep can be particularly difficult as tinnitus gets worse as you get tired and the constant whistling makes it hard to go to sleep. Adding background noise helps a great deal. Things like aspirin and caffeine, along with some medications, can make tinnitus flare up, so try to avoid such things late in the day. There are some natural/homeopathic products out there claiming to treat tinnitus, but it is hard to really tell how well or if they work since tinnitus is only noticed part time. For me, I can't see any improvement with these products.

    November 8, 2010 at 10:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • redplanet

      I definitely respond to the product Clear Tinnitus. I understand others may not, but I say this so that anyone interested might want to give it a try and see if it works for them. I buy it online which is a lot less expensive than the hfs. When I run out, the tinnitus flares dramatically. It then takes about a week to calm down again. I also find caffeine makes no difference, but insomnia makes it really bad. I believe we each have to experiment with what works for us. Our biological terrain is unique to us – we are not averages.

      November 8, 2010 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
  3. simpson

    I discovered that wearing hearing protectors, not the plug-type, while sitting in an extremely quiet room for half hour or so, caused it to subside. It has to be so quiet you can hear your heart beat and your own breath sounds like a roar. When you emerge from the super quiet the ringing noise will be gone. This made me think it was in the brain and not the ear.

    November 8, 2010 at 10:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Van MacPherson

    It has been more than a year,my mouth tasted like fresh garlic all day long.It burns my gum.My dentist can not find any thing wrong with my teeth or gum. I am 55 years old and takes good care of my teeth. Is it the symtom of old age and what should I do to get rid of that taste?

    November 8, 2010 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. David Scott

    Neurologists at UCSF have found that in the course of performing "deep brain stimulation" which involves the placement of electrodes in the brain for relief of Parkinson's Disease symptoms; that a few minutes electrical stimulation of the putamen area of the brain also quieted 4 out of 5 patents' tinnitus 'buzzing in their ears. Perhaps tinnitus noise is a feed back loop in the brain where the noise is the brain's attempt to deal with sounds at frequencies it no longer physically hears, and a disruption of that part of the brain interrupts the buzzing?

    November 8, 2010 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lola

    I've had varying levels of tinnitus for many, many years. Most of the time it sounds like the high-pitched whine you used to get from the old CRT televisions and computer monitors, or the security-system frequency that used to be used in department stores (I don't know whether that's still used because I can no longer - ironically - hear that frequency). The tinnitus has never been pinned to any one cause, but I do have TMJ and chronic migraine. Some of the medications prescribed to me for migraine made the tinnitus unbearable, but most of the time the noise is just my "normal." I even had tinnitus as a child (I had the migraines then, too). My head is a noisy place.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Roger

    I am a 64 year old male and have experienced tinnitus for at least the past 23 years. I am actually surprised that it doesn't bother me at all. At first I was aware of it only towards the end of the work day, now I hear the high-piched whistling all the time. I have assumed that this is due to excess alcohol consumption, although Dr Shu does not mention this as a possible cause.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. FOSTER

    My ears has been ringing since I was 6 yrs old. It is a constant hign pitch ringing that never goes away.
    I have had my hearing tested and the results were excellent. I am currently 43yrs young and have learned to
    live with because of no cure.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Sarah

    I am an audiologist. An audiologist is a hearing healthcare professional who often has a doctoral degree (some have a master's degree) and is state licensed and usually nationally certified as well. We specialize in tests of hearing and balance and the fitting of hearing aids and other assistive devices. Please consider having a hearing test if you have tinnitus. So many people with tinnitus also have hearing loss. For some, wearing a hearing aid (or two) assists with not only hearing better and, thus, improving your quality of life but also the sound that are heard through the hearing aids may help to mask out the tinnitus. I strongly encourage anyone who is having problems with hearing loss and/or tinnitus to schedule a hearing test with a certified and licensed audiologist. Audiologists may work privately, in a non-profit speech and hearing center or university clinic, or in conjuction with an ENT or at a hospital.

    November 8, 2010 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dr. Jennifer Shu

    Thanks for sharing all your stories. @Roger, thanks for your feedback. In fact, one study in Wales looked at 100 people with tinnitus and found that 62% found no change in their symptoms after drinking alcohol, 22% got worse, and 16% actually got better. Good luck to all of you!

    November 8, 2010 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. C E Chang

    I had experienced the same ear problem. I visited three Primary MD and three ENT Dr. and have tens of MRI. Dr. could not cure. Finally, my friend recommended to drink Dried Berry ( Wolf Berry in English) Tea.My condition improved after two weeks and cured after one month. I have no problem for about 10 years. I understand that it is very popular in China now. Dr. Shu may want to study further on this treatment.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lola

      That's interesting. My acupuncturist prescribed an herbal infusion that was heavy on the wolf berries, for my migraines. I drank it for several months, but I don't recall whether it affected the tinnitus. I do wonder whether there is a relationship between chronic migraine (with auras, nausea) and tinnitus. Dr. Shu?

      November 8, 2010 at 13:38 | Report abuse |
  12. Einstein08

    I have had hearing loss/tinnitus. I was told at 19 (many, many years ago) that my hearing loss was so bad the USMC almost didn't take me. How about that?

    My maternal grandmother had hearing loss. My mom and her three sisters have hearing loss. One was so bad she even had the internal surgery that took years to adjust. She carries a doctors note stating she had the surgery when going through airport security because she sets off the metal detectors.

    I will probably be needing hearing aides in the next few years as well. I just hope my children do not have this problem as they get older.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Laura

    I had three heart surgeries, one an unscheduled redo, at age 47 and the ringing started a few months after the last surgery. I had a neorologist and an ENT examine me along with my hearing and even did the dreaded tilt table. Everything came back normal. The only thing different that jumped out and gave them a possible answer was that each surgery involved the by-pass machine and being hooked up three times in four months could cause my ringing which has now lasted over five years. At this point, that's all they got.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Steve F.

    For years I have had a whistling tinnitus which started in my right ear and then spread to include my left ear. Audiological exams found no evidence of hearing loss and MRI scans ruled out acoustic neuroma. There have likewise been no ancillary symptoms such as vertigo or low-frequency hearing loss which would indicate endolymphatic hydrops, aka Meniere's disease. The odd thing about my tinnitus is that it gets louder and drops in pitch when I yawn and also if I press against my ears. Another anomalous aspect of the condition is that exposure to loud sounds makes the ringing inaudible for a period of time.

    Going to the audiologist was helpful in easing my anxiety, but otherwise offered no solution. Having tinnitus on my medical record caused me to have my applications for individual health insurance denied. Keep that in mind when deciding what to do – it is probably not worth tainting your medical record unless the tinnitus is accompanied by other symptoms which point to a more serious condition.

    Learning to live with – and not be ruled by – the ringing was key. On nights when the ringing kept me from sleeping, I put foam earplugs in so that all I could hear was the ringing. For some reason that made it bother me less.

    November 8, 2010 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ElenaB

      I agree Steve, I keep going to specialist every 4 or 5 years to see if there is something new out there that can help me with the constant ringing in my ears, but it was just a waste of money, two weeks ago I paid over 600.00 for hearing tests of which my insurance (which is a really good insurance and I'm pretty happy with it) paid only 190.00 and the rest out of packet...needless to say I am done with doctors, and if you have the ringing in your ears, learn to leave with it or spend the money by going to the spa, try to relax, the ringing will be much louder after you find out the doctor can not help you but will still charge you 600.00!

      November 8, 2010 at 14:18 | Report abuse |
  15. Meg

    My tinnitus began in my 20s (I'm in my 40s now). It sounds like a piece of farm machinery working the fields or a car idling. I wish for the days of being able to appreciate a quiet room and actually being able to "hear a pin drop".

    November 8, 2010 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Eileen47

    I've had tinnitus for about 20 years now (I'm 62) which sounds like cicadas during the late summer. The noise does increase when I'm under great stress, and most of the time I can ignore it. When I've had various dental procedures, the noise stops for a few hours. (And the silence is wonderful!) I thought the cessation might be related to the meds given to numb the mouth/gum areas, but a specialist said no.

    November 8, 2010 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. ManawaGirl

    I have had bouts of tinnitis, and bouts of dizzyness for 2 years. After an extreme bout about a year ago, I was diagnosed with Minear's Disease. If you are experiencing this, have your ENT evaluate you for this. It's manageable with diet (low sodium and a water pill) and taking an OTC pill for the dizzyness.

    November 8, 2010 at 14:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Ani

    I've had tinnitus for many years, but, contrary to hearing loss, actually have more acute hearing than most. I consider myself very fortunate!

    November 8, 2010 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. randy crawford

    Tinnitus can be caused by vasospasms near the cochlea. These can be due to the release of vasoactive compounds by hyper-autoimmune-acting white blood cells. If the wbc's have an alternative target to distract them, they are likely to diminish their bogus release of vasoactive substances. What works for me is frequent injections of MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) and other live virus vaccines.

    November 9, 2010 at 00:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Or just try quitis.

    November 18, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jose

    There is hope! Looks like a cure will be here soon! Ina couple of years! The University of Taxas in Dallas conducted a research and found a permanet cure for tinnitus. Click in these link:

    http://www.utdallas.edu/news/2011/1/13-8021_Nerve-Stimulation-Highly-Effective-in-Battling-Tin_article.html

    January 19, 2011 at 13:18 | Report abuse | Reply
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  30. Avyanna

    Effective tinnitus treatment is multi-pronged and should address the audiological, emotional, and neurological components of the condition. Here are a few treatment options that can provide considerable relief: Biofeedback Biofeedback is a relaxation technique that teaches patients how to control autonomic body functions such as temperature, heart rate, and muscle tension. The treatment is based on the presumption that the patient's discomfort is amplified by the stress caused by the tinnitus sounds. Patients learn how to alter the body s stress response by changing their own thoughts and feelings. Annual hearing screening Something as simple as excess ear wax can cause tinnitus, so having a yearly hearing exam can be a quick fix. Hearing aids Many tinnitus patients, especially those with hearing loss, experience complete or partial relief by using hearing aids. For many people with age-related hearing loss, tinnitus could be related to the deprivation of ambient sounds. Hearing aids can take care of this problem. If the hearing loss is in the frequency range of the tinnitus, hearing aids can bring back the ambient sounds that naturally cover up the tinnitus sounds. You are likely to benefit more from wearing hearing aids in both ears than in just one. Open-fit hearing aids, which improve hearing without blocking out softer external sounds, have been found to be quite beneficial. There are also combination devices which perform the normal sound-processing functions of hearing aids, while also providing low level external sounds to help relieve tinnitus. Sound machines Mild tinnitus can be masked with the help of sound machines that generate white noise such as a soft shhhhhhh sound. Some masking devices can be worn like hearing aids, and others can be placed on the tabletop near your bed. Pleasant sounds of rain, waves, waterfall, birdsong, or campfire can mask tinnitus and help you relax. Cochlear implants Cochlear implants are used for deaf or nearly deaf patients. These devices may help mask tinnitus by the ambient sounds they bring in, or the electrical stimulation that they send through the auditory nerve. Drug therapy Though many drugs have been researched in an attempt to relieve tinnitus, so far, no drug has been designed specifically to eliminate the disorder, and no existing drugs have been found to cure tinnitus. TMJ treatment If the tinnitus is due to a dysfunctional jaw joint, dental treatment can help relieve it, along with the TMJ pain.

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