WHEN an illness is not visible and indeed cannot be appreciated by persons other than the sufferer, understanding and awareness of the condition is sometimes limited.

The Tea for Tinnitus week, running from February 5 to 11 aims to redress this and raise the profile of a surprisingly common issue.

Tinnitus is described as the sensation of sound or noise which only the person affected can hear.

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Although typically described as a ringing, it can take on many forms including buzzing and whooshing, and a few perceive music being played, although this is much less common.

Tinnitus can strike at any age, with an estimated 30 per cent of people, including children, suffering the symptoms at some point. Thankfully, most episodes are short lived, however in the UK there are six million people with the condition long term, and ten per cent of these will be affected severely.

There are many causes of tinnitus, from a simple build-up of wax in the ears, ear infection itself through to hearing loss, unfortunately a natural part of ageing.

Loud music concerts and working with heavy machinery also put people at risk.

Some drugs including aspirin, antidepressants and certain antibiotics may also trigger an attack. However, in a third of cases no cause is found and examination of the ears is completely normal.

ONE of the theories behind tinnitus is that it is not a fault with the ear itself, but rather the brain, which is unable to filter out noises it would normally discard. Thus episodes sometimes correspond to periods of increased stress in a person’s life.

Despite tinnitus rarely being a sign of underlying illness or disease, nevertheless it can be very frightening and indeed disabling, especially if persistent, and can drive one to distraction, with some sufferers even taking their own lives as a result.

The first thing to do would be to see your routine GP. Simple causes such as wax can be easily sorted and if hearing loss is identified, being referred to an audiologist would be the next step.

Some individuals report that their symptoms are made worse by caffeine, alcohol and lack of sleep, and addressing these simple measures can often yield improvement.

There are now dedicated clinics which have much to offer, from understanding tinnitus to providing practical solutions for living with a condition which as yet has no cure.

Symptoms are often worse in the quiet, so sound boxes have been developed, which have soothing background noises such as waves lapping the shore or leaves rustling, to distract from the unpleasant ringing sensations.

COUNSELLING to help better understand the condition has shown to help and Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) involves a combination of sound therapy and intensive counselling, with the goal of educating the brain to filter out unwanted noises.

In terms of minimising your risk of tinnitus, it is important to respect your hearing, avoid prolonged exposure to loud noises, and always wear appropriate ear protection if advised.

More information about the condition is available from the British Tinnitus Association via the website www.tinnitus.org.uk or from www.nhs.uk/conditions/tinnitus/