Ear Sounds

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are ear sounds?

The sound of buzzing or ringing in your ears in the absence of audible noise can be annoying. The symptom caused by a medical condition called tinnitus. Ear sounds may mimic noises, such as buzzing, ringing, clicking, hissing, clanging or wheezing. They can be present in one or both ears, constant or intermittent. Ear sounds are a common occurrence that can range in severity from being a nuisance to being a symptom of a medical emergency that should be evaluated immediately.

Ear sounds have no known direct cause, but they can be symptomatic of ear infections, foreign objects in the ear, earwax buildup, allergies, high blood pressure, anemia, or a condition known as Meniere’s disease (swelling in part of the inner ear canal, causing dizziness and hearing loss). Alcohol, caffeine, and certain drugs are also contributing factors in some cases of ear sounds.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if the sounds in your ear begin after a head injury, or if they are accompanied by such symptoms as nausea with or without vomiting, and dizziness or vertigo.

Seek prompt medical care if you have sounds in your ear that are persistent, recurrent, or cause you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with ear sounds?

Symptoms of ear sounds, or tinnitus, occur in the ears and may mimic the sounds of ringing, buzzing, clicking, hissing, clanging or wheezing. The volume may be very low or high and the sounds may occur in one or both ears. You may be barely aware of the ear sounds or they may distract you from your daily routines and interfere with sleep. Ear sounds occur when the brain misinterprets nerve signals as sound.

Symptoms that may accompany ear sounds

Conditions that cause ear sounds may be accompanied by other symptoms including:

  • Discharge or drainage from the ear
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Ear pain or fullness
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Malaise or lethargy
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Redness, warmth or swelling

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, ear sounds, especially if they occur following a head injury, may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Fever
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Severe headache

What causes ear sounds?

The ear canal is lined with tiny hairs (cilia) that sense movement and vibration conveyed to the brain as sound. When stimulated, regardless of cause, these cilia communicate sound signals. Ear sounds may occur when these cells in your ear that respond to sound waves malfunction and transmit electrical impulses that your brain misinterprets as sound.

Ear sounds can be idiopathic, which means that they have no known cause. Alternatively, they may result from various causes, including underlying ear infections, earwax accumulation, medications, foreign objects in the ear, allergies, high blood pressure, anemia, or Meniere’s disease (swelling in part of the inner ear canal, causing dizziness and hearing loss).

Common causes of ear sounds

Ear sounds may result from a number of causes including:

  • Acoustic neuroma (benign tumor of the vestibulocochlear nerve)

  • Blood vessel disorders (vascular malformations)

  • Ear infections

  • Ear wax buildup

  • Eustachian tube obstruction

  • Exposure to loud noises

  • Hearing aids

  • Meniere’s disease (swelling in part of the inner ear canal, causing dizziness and hearing loss)

  • Otosclerosis (hardening of the bones in the ear)

  • Stress

  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain

  • Thyroid disease

  • Trauma

Medications that can cause ear sounds

Certain drugs may lead to ear sounds as a side effect including:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Antimalaria drugs
  • Aspirin (high doses)
  • Cancer medications

Serious or life-threatening causes of ear sounds

In rare cases, ear sounds may be caused by serious or potentially life-threatening conditions including:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of ear sounds

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to the ear sounds including:

  • When did the sounds start? How long have you had them?

  • Do you hear the sounds in one or both ears?

  • Have you recently flown in an airplane, gone scuba diving, or done anything else that exposed you to sudden pressure changes?

  • Have you been exposed to loud noises, such as music, fireworks, or construction work?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of ear sounds?

Left untreated, ear sounds can interfere with and potentially diminish your quality of life. The noise can disrupt sleep and work and cause you undue stress, anxiety and depression. In addition, ear sounds may be a symptom of a serious condition, such as head injury or brain tumor, which may lead to serious, even life-threatening complications. Once the underlying cause of the sounds is diagnosed, it is important to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care provider design specifically for you. Complications of untreated ear sounds or their underlying causes, such as head trauma or blood vessel diseases, include:

  • Brain damage
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood changes, such as anxiety, depression and stress
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 6
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Tinnitus. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003043.htm.
  2. Tinnitus. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/tinnitus.html.
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.