The researchers said that the high amount of microwave energy being absorbed by the cochlea in the inner ear might explain the possible connection.
Hutter said loud noise is the main risk factor for tinnitus. But, he added, "we are observing a widespread use of mobile phones and an increasing intensity of use. Therefore, even a small enhancement of the risk by mobile phone use could be of public health importance."
Dr. Thomas J. Balkany, director of the University of Miami Ear Institute, said this study failed to show that using cell phones causes tinnitus.
"The data are very weak," Balkany said. "They [the study authors] haven't looked into the common causes of tinnitus in the kind of detail that would be necessary. These include stress and anxiety and depression, [and] the huge impact of MP3 players," he said.
A weak relationship seems to exist between tinnitus and cell phone use, Balkany said, "but it's not causative in any way."
A much larger study would be needed to determine whether cell phones really can cause tinnitus, he said.
Hutter said protective measures are easily implemented to protect hearing. These include discouraging cell phone use by children and teenagers, using headsets, and reducing the number and length of cell phone calls.
To learn more about tinnitus, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Hans-Peter Hutter, M.D., Institute of Environmental Health, Center for Public Health, University of Vienna, Austria; Thomas J. Balkany, M.D., director, University of Miami Ear Institute; July 19, 2010, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online
All rights reserved