Do ear plugs cause tinnitus?

Over many years of bothering and annoying people about noise generally, one of the consistent questions that I've had come up is whether ear plugs cause tinnitus or make tinnitus worse. Or as I’ve heard it a few times, Tintinitus, which sounds more like an infection caught from a Belgian cartoon character.

Tinnitus at its most simple is the sensation of noise in one or both ears even though there is no external stimulus causing it. It may not be a 'real' noise but because the ear is signalling to the brain that there is a noise then it sounds just as real to the sufferer as if it were an external sound. It can also be loud - really loud! If the part of the ear which is causing the tinnitus is the part which normally tells the brain about a really loud external noise then to the brain the tinnitus is just as loud.

What causes tinnitus?

Here's an unhelpful answer - loads of stuff. For example, just some of them are:

  • Tiredness

  • A cold

  • Getting older - it is perfectly normal to get it as you get older

  • Stress

  • Some medication

  • Excess noise

  • Bangs on the head

  • Ear infections

  • Cardiovascular diseases

  • Diabetes

  • Being French

  • And the list goes on and on

(One of those is made up...) So here is one helpful tip: If, as I have seen online, a vendor of hearing protection makes a blunt claim that their ear plug will stop you getting tinnitus, they are talking nonsense and are just interested in selling something to you. Noise is ONE cause among many so wearing an ear plug MAY help IF the cause is noise. Looking at you 'sometimes a little too free with the marketing speak' Flare Audio...

What does tinnitus sound like?

Many people think of tinnitus as a clear whistle, and it can indeed be this, but it can take many forms. It can be a whooshing noise, the sound of wind through trees, a buzz saw, a pulsing noise with a beat (often linked to blood pressure), and so on. If however the sound in your head is a voice telling you to kill the Pope then this is not tinnitus... Joking aside, the effects of tinnitus should not be under-appreciated as living with this every day can be horrendous and do occasionally drive people to suicide. We all get it from time to time, where it becomes an issue is when it is there permanently and begins to be intrusive on things like sleep.

So, do ear plugs make tinnitus worse?

EAR Classic plugs.jpg

This one is an easy simple answer - no, no and thrice no. Ear plugs do not cause tinnitus or make tinnitus worse.

What they can do is make it more noticeable though. For example, most people with just a mild tinnitus only notice it at night when it is quiet, the external noise dies down and stops swamping the sound of the tinnitus in their ears and they start to notice it. Ear plugs have the same effect - if they effectively reduce the external noise entering the ear then there is less going on in your ears with less external sound to drown out the tinnitus sounds, meaning it can become more noticeable. 

Ear plugs can help stop tinnitus getting any worse IF it is being caused by repeated exposures to high noise levels, by which I mean noises over 85dB(A), the kind of noise levels where you start to have to raise your voice or shout gently to have a conversation with someone. If you don't have that kind of regular exposure then ear plugs will probably be of no help at all.

An aside...

My favourite conversation about this came up when doing a noise assessment up in the Glasgow area. I was told with absolute certainty that 'if you put ear plugs in too deeply then they kill the hairs that sense the noise and make you deaf and cause tinnitus'. In this particular factory this was completely accepted as total fact by every worker in there, and everyone I spoke to knew it came from 'a doctor who told it to someone a while ago'. Although as with all these myths, nobody seemed to actually be the person this doctor had spoken to.

This is IMPOSSIBLE. To get a plug in that deep you would have to shove it down the ear canal, bursting and through the ear drum (agony), carry on through the middle ear crushing the small bones in there (agony), through another drum (agony) and into the cochlea (agony and impossible). But no matter how much I tried to explain this, even drawing pictures of the insides of ears to help out, they were not for convincing as the urban myth was most definitely reality there!