Health

Why do I sometimes hear ringing in my ears, especially when I drink alcohol?

---asks Anonymous from New York, NY.

August 28, 2006
Can you trust your inner ear?
Can you trust your inner ear?

When Superman’s ears rang at frequencies no one else could hear, it was usually bad news. But before you think that you’re gaining superhuman powers and are about to hear Lois Lane or some other poor, trapped soul’s pleas to be rescued, dear mystery man or woman of steel, you should know that many people (besides Superman and yourself) experience ringing in their ears.

Head noises such as ringing, perceived when there is no external source, are collectively known as tinnitus. The sounds you may hear range from ringing to buzzing, chirping, beating, humming, and roaring. But you are not alone. The American Tinnitus Association (ATA) estimates that nearly 50 million Americans have experienced tinnitus in one form or another. While many people only hear these noises sporadically and for a short period of time, tinnitus can be a more constant and even debilitating problem for some.

In order to understand the most common way in which tinnitus occurs, we must venture inside the ear. Sounds in the air cause pressure waves to vibrate your ear drum when they reach your ears. This motion is translated into pressure changes in the fluid behind the ear drum, and deep in the ear canal, tiny structures called stereocilia bend and tilt in response. These stereocilia are attached to hair cells (no relation to the hair on your head—these particular hair cells are sensory cells named for their fuzzy appearance). In reaction to the swaying stereocilia, the hair cells depolarize and release a neurotransmitter. Your brain finally receives this input from your ears by way of the auditory nerve and interprets these signals as sound.

But when stereocilia are damaged, for example if they’ve been bent out of shape by repeated exposure to loud sounds like gunfire or heavy construction, then this process doesn’t work as it should. The damaged stereocilia mistakenly tell your brain that you hear a sound even when there is actually none. Because stereocilia are not indestructible, they can remain damaged or even be permanently destroyed by these events.

Yet tinnitus is a symptom, not a disease, and it can be caused by many other triggers. Your mom was right, clean those dirty ears! Some people produce more ear wax than others and that waxy build-up can actually plug your ear canal and cause tinnitus. Certain medications that are toxic to the ear can also cause tinnitus, as can ear or sinus infections, head or neck injury, certain types of tumors, and vascular problems such as hypertension. The reasons behind some of these connections to tinnitus are not yet known—researchers are still investigating.

And here’s where the alcohol comes in.

Downing an excessive amount of intoxicating liquids over a long period of time (usually defined as more than that one stingy glass of wine a day) may contribute to hypertension, or high blood pressure. Although the connection between high blood pressure and tinnitus is not well understood, it has been observed that both high blood pressure and excessive alcohol consumption can make your tinnitus worse. And so can other factors that often accompany drinking, like stress or caffeine.

My guess is that if you’re going to a bar or club to get your drinks, they’re serving you another tinnitus irritant for free—loud music. If you haven’t been stopping bullets or using power tools lately, then maybe hanging out in pub environments where you have to scream to be heard is contributing to the ringing in your ears. Remember those beat-up stereocilia from above? Those blaring speakers are kicking them when they’re down!

Most people don’t have a problem coping with an intermittent ringing in their ears, but according to the ATA about two million people suffer from tinnitus so acute that it interferes with their ability to function on a daily basis. While tinnitus can affect people of all ages, chronic tinnitus is often a factor of hearing loss due to aging. According to the Mayo Clinic, if the ringing in your ears is persistent or if it becomes worse, and if it is accompanied by dizziness or hearing loss, it’s time to see a doctor.

Treatment for tinnitus is very individual and can range from avoiding foods that may make your tinnitus worse to taking medications. To learn more about tinnitus, visit the American Tinnitus Association or the American Academy of Otolaryngology (an association of ear, nose and throat doctors).

I’ll leave you with this bit of information: when someone complains about tinnitus, doctors often ask if they just attended a rock concert. Doctors recommend protecting your hearing whenever possible, because in addition to the avoidable causes of tinnitus there are other causes that are not as easy to control. Do your stereocilia a favor and back away from the 6-foot wall of speakers on stage, at least until you perfect your ability to lift your arms and instantly jet off to a quieter planet.

——

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About the Author

Sabina Borza

Sabina Borza is a lover of life, culture, and science. After flirting with medicine, veterinary medicine, and primatology, she realized she was better suited to dabble in many fields as a writer rather than devote herself to one academic pursuit. She holds a biology degree from Clark University, but will probably return to school every couple of years for the rest of her life.

Discussion

93 Comments

Karen Schrock says:

Melinda: I don’t get it.

Ma says:

LOL at Melinda!
p.s. if it’s from drinking, it’s the alarm clock, silly.
ma

My sister wrote that. “Shanks” means thanks in my her world… She likes Ask Scienceline. You might have noticed she submitted a question herself.

RockMonkey says:

i wear earplugs to clubs and everyone makes fun of me. but when i’m 80 and still have perfect hearing, then we’ll see who’s laughing.

Sharon Miller says:

I had never had buzzing in my ears till two & a half years ago when I had aspartame poisoning. It started again when I had an air freshener stick in my bedroom. Now it is constant. You may want to investigate the connection between toxic chemicals and why it causes tinnutis……breathing or ingesting chemicals->body->brain->neurotransmitters=damaged neurotransmitters

Dragos says:

N-am stiut ca exista asemenea efecte de la alcool, inseamna ca n-am baut niciodata suficient de mult ….

Brendan says:

I have a ringing noise in my right ear for about 5 days now, and i used ear drops to clean out my ear, there wasn’t an excess amount of wax, but the ringing still persists. and I was only at one club in the past 3 weeks, so it can’t be an exposure to the sounds from the club. Would getting my ears syringed help?

Mary Farr says:

I have a ringing that I have been noticing in my ears for the past 4-5 days. I do have a hearing loss, as well as a wax buildup. Is this for sure why I have been expieriencing this? Also, should I seek medical attention for this?

Dazza says:

I have had tinnitus for 17 years. There is no cure and your brain will simply adjust to the noise or ringing. In the beginning ti was very distressing but I personally found it easier to avoid stress and coffee / tea. Swallowing or popping your ears{ hold your nose and pop your ears like you do on an aeroplane helps. avoid giving in to this condition. Ignore it!! – Your brain will adapt to this sound. Promise!!

Maximillain Levy says:

I walk with it, i sleep with, i hear the high frecquency buzzing sounds and constant birds chirping. Is there any scientific research done on the subject? If so, i would like to volunteer for the program.

Joshua J Romero says:

Maximillain,
There are clinical trials currently recruiting patients with tinnitus.
http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=tinnitus

tom says:

thank you

Tsagu says:

I have had a ringing in my ears for a while and have put murine ear drops in my ears then rinsed and i can hear much better. it wont bring wax about but instead bassicly makes it evaporate and then you winse and it all comes out in at least 4 days. getting it syringed is an option also.

I have found something both, I think, interesting and useful. I am sure my CPAP machine (Sleep Apnoea) along with a DECT phone by my bed as possible causes of intermitent ringing in the ears. I cannot remove the machine for obvious reasons but the ringing stops after my morning shower and stays away for some time. I am wondering why water does this when it runs over my head. Just thought it just might help others.

Colin says:

The original author is wrong about the noise in clubs causing the ringing in the ears. This is definitely produced by the alcohol itself. I have tinnitus for about 10 years, and alcohol makes it worse for about a day or so after drinking regardless, of having been in a noisy place or not.

DJ says:

the author is not wrong about the noise in clubs colin. this causes the ringing in the ears, alcohol only aggravates it. given that you have tinnitus already then the alcohol is aggravating it.

karl says:

hi guys, im a dj i have djed for 8years im only 21. when leaving a club i have the usual ringing in my ears and have always even with my £150 ear moulded ear plugs. recently i have had a constant ringing in my ears i clean the mwith eardrops and still ahve the ringing i have now resulted in wearing my ear plugs to work as i work with a loud mouth co worker.

id appreciate any advice or help as its causing me serious anxiety and causing strain on my relationship as i am struggling to get to sleep and waking up.

please email me any advice djprotege@hotmail.co.uk

thank you,

karl

Jorge says:

Thanks.
I have arthritis, been on prednisone for 13 ys now, (I’m 45) Just moved to France, drugs here work very well but I have constant ringing in “port side” (left) I suspect a side effect from the new drugs, will see the doctor soon.
Any extra advice?
Thanks.
Jorge

blob be beastn says:

i have ringing in my ears right now i just looked this up cause i was wondering if that was what caused it. I was listening to my ipod at like full blast and it made my ears start ringing.

mahesh says:

try improving your writing skills ! no idea what you are saying

mikhon says:

Hi bob,

Maybe that Ear noise a symptoms of tinnitus. Maybe your eardrum was destroyed because of too loud music in you ipod. As a suggestion, you can ask your doctor for it or simple visit this link http://www.tinnitussite.com/Ear-Noise.html regarding on your problem info’s. Hope it can help.

Simon says:

Loud music (or any loud sound) plus alcohol and nicotine are bad for your ears. It is so, because a) alcohol rise our blood pressure, b) cigarettes cut our Oxygen, so blood run fast but without right fuel, c) a + b = tired ears = less immunity.
That’s why after any concert our ears need one or two days of rest.

Marina says:

I haven’t been in clubs for ages, I listen to soft classics, for a month now the buzz in my head is constant, accompanied by a strange head on my shoulder, as if I’ve been underwater for too long.. I do smoke, I don’t drink.. Although a smoker, I have always been healthy before this .. Yeah I know, it’s time to quit the smoke and clean ear.

jose says:

Can I get the email adddress of Jorge? How do I contact him. I have similar issues. Two weeks back, they said I have Arthritis. Now, I hear a sound in my left ear in the morning if I had a drink last night. Perhaps there is some relationship between these two?

EJ says:

DONT WORRY

When i first heared the ringing i was very scared and people were telling me it would go in about 1-2 weeks. 90 % of the noise went away. But that 10 % has stuck with me for 5 years. I have gotten relitively used to it so it dosn’t really bother me any more.

James Moore says:

I had this problem for years. I found this product (Tinnitus Miracle) and it actually worked! Has anyone else used this? Here’s a link to the website:

http://4a88b6u-2140lp3lwcp9vp6wax.hop.clickbank.net/

kathy says:

I have hissing in my ears or head.Could this be caused by taking too much hydrocodone. I have osteoprosis very bad.

neil says:

I can tell you that alcohol, and antidepresants can cause it. Antidepresants are strange as they can also be prescribed to cure tinnitus but when i lower or raise my dose they also cause it.

joe says:

its called electicmangenate plus thats why your ears ring

Brandon says:

I had an ear infection today starting with the Nose & Throat, and started taking medicine after that hour after taking the medicine all i hear in just my left ear is a constant ringing sound, and sound is slightly dimmed. O.o I’m young and I am 15.

Shelle says:

@Sharon: Damaged neurotransmitters would not bind to their receptors and this could not cause a false perception of sound. That would lead to deafness, not tinnitus. That’s a neat little train of though you have, but there is no sound biological reasoning to support it.

Cypress says:

this has been going on withme for years! this really helped

Jigsaw says:

In my opinion, what you are hearing in not ringing, what you are hearing is different frequencies that other people can’t hear. The reason you can hear those frequencies is because you have been introduced to those frequencies repeatedly through your lifetime. Loud music, gunshots, ect. And when you are relaxed us when you can hear it the most. Why? Because you are more focused and its like meditation… boom you can hear different frequencies. I may be wrong. I don’t really care, I’m high as a kite right now and listening to the fuckin wireless frequency coming from my neighbors house. Weird.

formula cars today are like duplicates with a pointy nose. you cant realy tell witch one is witch. but the old formula cars are beautiful in appearance and have their own style of body looks.

Dennis says:

Im with Jigsaw (im not high an havent been since I was 24 (5.5 years ago now LMAO) {oh well you get old!}, but I reckon its from stress, combined with being able to hear shit like the all the power suppliers in my house. When I turn shit off its honestly queiter but then again my houuse has so much electronic shit in it

Jojojo says:

Right basically, I’m 16 and when I’m on my own, usually, all I got is this constant ringing in my ears from what I can remember I’ve had it since I’ve noticed which is probably my whole life, if you get what I mean. I want it to stop, I’ve got the best hearing out of all my friends and I always listen to music quietly, if I can hear the faintest of sound coming from my friends head phones, I piss them off by telling them to turn it down as I’m just thinking of their hearing in the future, but they say it’s too quiet to hear… Anyways my point is will there be any point that it’ll just go away or will it progress like it did just a sec ago I’m sat in my bedroom everything around me is dead quiet my ears are ringing as per usual except I can hear it even though I’m on the phone, on the other end I hear my boyfriend talking and the normal background noise but I’m finding the ringing is now taking over my conversation, I just want it to stop, if you get what I mean.

Woopdy says:

I believe the ringing in the ears to be from lack of oxygen to things like the brain, I have put this to test many times and I know how to make my ears ring on command

Jimmy says:

I dont know why I got thr ringing sound last week. After I came home from a swimming pool and had a bath, I heard the ringing sound. I thought it would gone away after a day. But no, it has been on my head for a week. Please Help!

Jill says:

Ditto, what Jigsaw and Dennis have written.

I am online researching why I would have a sudden, without provocation ringing in my ears. I woke up at 4am and took an ibuprofen, and at that point my ears were fine. When I woke later every noise was driving me insane, the wireless at the high end, planes in the air and the idle of a neighbors big ol motorcycle at the low end. The low frequency noises feel like actual waves striking my head. It may be the advil or lack of water that brought this on, but I think the fact that I was soundly sleeping while these hi and low frequencies were emitting could have left my ears relaxed and too open them. I have low blood pressure, no hypertension, never eat salt, and do not drink enough volume of alcohol or with enough regularity to explain tinnitus. Off to read up on dietary causes…

Jill says:

I have just found a better term from what me and others are complaining of: hyperacusis. Tinnitus is sound perceived when no external sound exists. Hyperacusis is an intolerance to actual sounds.

christian says:

i have been experiancing this ringing in my ear maybe once a day for the past 2 years and i have never known why but this page really helped

Qyrone says:

About 5 days ago I woke up with my left ear blocked, I took a shower and used ear buds but it never went away .. 3 days later it unblocked, but there was an extremely loud ringing in my ear, I absolutely cannot stand it any longer .. Struggling to sleep and do anything during the day. I have an earphone in my ear during the day playing music to block out the ringing.

I’m going to see a doctor soon, though I would come research a few things before I do, but none of this really helps me to be honest, don’t suppose anyone here would be able to give me some advise?

Much appreciated

Christine says:

I’m an audiology student. I’ve learned that sudden, high HZ sound is stereocila (sensory cells within the cochlea) dying. I’ve heard of people temporarily losing their hearing when they drink. No doubt booz isn’t good for you.

Christine says:

@Qyrone. Sorry! Wish I could help, but I don’t know enough about pathology of the ear. You need to see a doctor. What do you mean, left ear blocked? The ear canal was closed (with swollen skin)?? Or swollen ear drum?

Alan says:

I have had a very high pitched ringing in my ears for 15 years. It just came out of the blue. After many visits to doctors over the years I found a very wise old doc that helped me mentally. I had been having trouble sleeping and it was starting to drive me crazy after dealing with it for about 5 years. The doc did all the test that would rule out a dangerous or obvious cause to the ringing. He told me to focus on the fact that you are in perfect health other then you hear ringing. He told me that the ringing will probably never go away. It was not what I wanted to hear but from that point forward I adjusted my thinking from how do I cure this to how to I adjust to it. Eventually my brain just adjusted to the sound to the point that I can think of it as white noise and forget it is ringing. I even sometimes use it as a comfort to drown out other unwanted noise. A few things that I have learned about my tinnitus: If I drink booz it will cause it to become worse. It does not get louder but changes pitch which makes me aware of it. After about a day I adjust to the new pitch. I guess this is related to a change in blood pressure. Coffee does not seem to effect it. For me asprin is the worst and will cause it to change pitch back and forth for about a week. If you can try to keep whatever noise you hear constant so your brain can adjust.
I am sure it is different for everyone and I am no doctor on the subject but I hope this info helps.

Leigh says:

I have ringing in my ears excessively today and WAS at a club last night and WAS drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. My acupuncturist says that ringing in the ears is because of stagnant (or abused, in my case) liver and thus- the ringing I am experiencing today as my liver works to eliminate the too many lavender gin & tonics from last night is quite “normal”.

Davus says:

I have been searching for this for a time now. I think i had a serious problem or something with my ears. Thank you for clearing it up. I feel sooo much better. Having a few beers (like 2-3) always leads me to hearing the sound when everything else it quiet. Good thing im drunk enough to go to sleep easily :D Cheers

Davis says:

It’s Davis actually… damn… typing stuff while drunk and in dark kinda sucks, no? xD

David says:

28 years as a firefighter/paramedic running many call daily in trucks with loud sirens/air horns/big diesel engines as an armrest. back then if you wore any kind of protective gear you were considered a wimp, including breathing apparatus to prevent smoke inhalation. Those days are gone now. These are obvious possibilities. This high pitched ringing sounds like a chorus of faint whistles always in the background especially when I am in a quiet place like in my bed trying to sleep. I noticed it after I retired. I used to have higher blood pressure, but took off unwanted pounds and it has become more normal. Why now after the obvious causes are behind me 5 years ago in my life?

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