ASK SARAH From our GP
QI got a cold a few months ago and developed tinnitus, which I thought would settle but the ringing isn’t going. It’s stopping me from getting any sleep because it’s so loud at night, and I sometimes feel I’m going mad.
ATinnitus – a sound you can hear, but that comes from inside your own head – is remarkably common, affecting as many as one in 10 adults. Most find it only a minor inconvenience, but for about one in 100 people it can have a huge impact on quality of life and mental wellbeing. You describe a ringing, but everyone experiences tinnitus differently. For some, it’s a buzzing; for others, a whistling or hissing. You are absolutely not going mad. Almost everyone with tinnitus, though, is more troubled by it when they’re in quiet surroundings – that’s exactly why you find it gets worse at night.
It is rarely caused by a serious underlying cause. The exception is tinnitus in only one ear, especially if it’s accompanied by hearing problems on the same side. That always needs a referral to a specialist to exclude a tumour on the nerve responsible for hearing and balance. Pulsatile tinnitus – a rhythmic sound in the ear – should also be checked. Meniere’s disease can lead to bouts of tinnitus, hearing loss and vertigo.
Tinnitus is also closely linked to hearing loss – it’s thought your brain and auditory system may be trying to replace sounds they’re no longer being stimulated by. Although some people can have severe hearing loss with no tinnitus, it’s well worth getting your hearing checked. Age-related hearing loss starts much younger than people imagine – it affects 40% of over 50s and, on average, people take 10 years to seek help for it. Yet a hearing aid can often control tinnitus as well as improve your hearing.
While there is no cure for most cases, tinnitus does often improve with time. Just keeping background noise on can also help – either a radio or a noise generator that provides soothing ‘white noise’. The British Tinnitus Association (tinnitus.org.uk) has lots of options. If you’re severely affected, a referral to a tinnitus clinic (run by an audiologist, with specialist Cbt-style counselling) can make a real difference.
QI have to go into hospital soon, and I’ve been told that taking probiotics could stop me catching bugs while I’m there. Is this true?
ALong gone are the days when we assumed that all bacteria were harmful. Our guts are teeming with friendly bacteria, which aid digestion and prevent harmful bacteria from taking control. Probiotics contain large quantities of these beneficial bacteria, most commonly Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. By contrast, prebiotics (found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, and in onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, garlic and tomatoes) are complex carbohydrates that reach your large bowel unchanged and encourage good bacteria to flourish.
The gut infection Clostridium difficile (also known as C. difficile) is often caused by taking antibiotics. It can be serious, especially if you’re unwell or vulnerable because of surgery. There is evidence that probiotics can help prevent C. difficile infection in both adults and children. Importantly, the risk of serious side effects from probiotics seems low and other studies have suggested they can help prevent travellers’ diarrhoea as well.