Harmless hum? How living near a busy road causes tinnitus

The louder the noise from a busy road, close to where you live, the worse your tinnitus. Photo: Getty

John Elder

People with tinnitus – the phantom ringing in your ears – tend to believe they’re paying the price for attending too many loud rock concerts.

Or a job on the roads with a jackhammer.

But there is good evidence that tinnitus is more complex than a case of noise-induced hearing loss. In short, it’s a consequence of – and made worse by – all manner of stress to the body and emotions.

According to a 2017 article in the Hearing Journal – a piece that described the vicious, self-perpetuating relationship between tinnitus and insomnia – the number one cause of tinnitus is ageing, the body’s ultimate stress test.

Acoustic shock, head or neck trauma, ototoxicity (where hearing or balance is compromised because of a medical drug), viral and vascular diseases, and “a host of other medical and psychiatric conditions” can all cause tinnitus.

In 2020, we reported that the stress of COVID-19 made tinnitus worse, and was possibly a trigger.

How about the hum and grind of traffic?

Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have found a link between traffic noise and the risk of developing tinnitus.

While their study concludes that the louder the traffic noise, the greater the risk – they also state the real damage comes from “a vicious cycle involving stress reactions and sleep disturbance”.

This is in line with research going back at least 30 years.

The role of sleep and insomnia has come to the fore in recent years, as described in the Hearing Journal article mentioned above.

Study starts with addresses

The new study looked at data from 3.5 million Danes, including 40,692 people diagnosed with tinnitus. This represented the population aged 30 and above.

They modelled road traffic and railway noise at the most and least exposed facades of all Danish addresses from 1990 until 2017. In other words, who was getting more traffic noise and who was getting little to none.

They then calculated noise exposure over one, five and 10 years against retrieved and detailed information on socio-economic factors, for individuals and whole areas.

And the results?

Analysis showed that for every 10 decibels more noise in people’s homes, “the risk of developing tinnitus increases by 6 per cent”.

Bottom line, the study connects two well-known issues: Traffic noise can make us stressed and affect our sleep, and “tinnitus can get worse when we live under stressful situations and we do not sleep well”.

How do we know that the tinnitus risk is linked to sleep, not just noise?

The authors say that “higher associations were found when noise was measured at the quiet side of their houses, that is, the side facing away from the road”.

This is where “most people would place their bedroom whenever possible, therefore researchers believe this is a better indicator of noise during sleep”.

Will electric cars reduce the risk?

No. The authors say it’s “a myth that replacing fuel cars with electric cars can significantly reduce traffic noise exposure at people’s houses”.


Because the noise “comes mainly from the contact between the tyres and the road”.

What doesn’t seem to have been explored is the issue of air pollution and stress.

As we reported in 2020, living less than 50 metres from a major road – or less than 150 metres from a highway – has been linked to a significantly higher incidence of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

The implication is that chronic exposure to traffic pollution increases the risk of these neurological diseases, a theory supported by previous research.