Most of us have probably experienced ringing in the ears after being exposed to loud noises. In most cases, this is only temporary and then our ears go back to normal. But, what happens when there are problems with the ear? Ear problems are surprisingly common and can come from a variety of sources. Here are some of the most common ear problems that people see an ENT about: hearing loss, ear infections, tinnitus, and Meniere’s Disease. In this blog, we’ll go over common ear conditions, what causes them, and how your ENT provides treatment.
Hearing loss is a common problem that can happen in one or both ears. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 12 has experienced hearing loss in both ears. Hearing loss has many causes including age, genetics, and exposure to loud noises. There are three types of hearing loss – conductive, sensorineural, and mixed.
- Conductive hearing loss happens when there is a problem with the ear canal, eardrum, or the three bones connected to the eardrum. This type of hearing loss can be caused by earwax buildup, infection (that causes fluid buildup), or a perforated eardrum.
- Sensorineural hearing loss happens when there is damage to the inner ear or auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss is most often caused by age, noise exposure, or some medications.
- Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. It can happen when there is a problem with the outer ear, middle ear, inner ear, or auditory nerve.
Hearing loss can have a number of causes such as age, exposure to loud noises, ear infections, perforated eardrum, cholesteatoma, infections, Meniere’s disease, tumors, trauma, medications, genes, or autoimmune disorders. When it comes to treating hearing loss, it is therefore important to determine the underlying cause. An ENT specialist can help to properly diagnose hearing loss, identify its cause, and suggest treatments that can help.
Ear infections are another common ear issue and can affect either the inner or outer ear. In children, inner ear infections, known as otitis media, are extremely common. In fact, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders notes that 5 out of 6 children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday.
This is due to the fact that the eustachian tube connecting the middle ear to the back of the throat is angled in such a way that encourages infection. However, this changes with growth, which is why ear infections are not as commonly seen in adults. Your child may have an ear infection if they:
- pull at their ears
- fluid drains from the ears
- have problems balancing
- cannot hear
- act fussy
- complain of ear pain
Adults between the ages of 45-75 are more likely to experience an outer ear infection known as otitis externa. This type of infection can be either bacterial or fungal, and affects the skin of the ear canal. It is commonly seen in individuals who have other skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis, but it can also be caused by skin irritation due to wearing a hearing aid. Additionally, people who swim regularly are also more likely to experience this type of infection.
Most ear infections will eventually resolve themselves within a few days, however there are also cases where you may want to visit an ENT. For example, if it has been longer than 72 hours or if the infection continues to come back. Your ENT may choose to treat an ear infection with antibiotics, ear drops, or even by placing tubes in the ear drums to assist in fluid drainage.
Tinnitus is a problem that affects the inner ear and is characterized by a ringing, buzzing, hissing, sizzling, or whooshing in the ear. The CDC estimates that around 15% of the population are affected by tinnitus. This can be caused by a variety of different things – including exposure to loud noises, age-related hearing loss, or even dental problems.
Some people experience tinnitus as a constant noise, while others may experience different sounds that come and go. There can also be different volumes of the sounds associated with tinnitus. Since tinnitus is considered a symptom rather than a disease, it is important to be evaluated by an ENT to determine its cause.
Primary tinnitus is generally caused by hearing loss, while secondary tinnitus is usually caused by a specific cause that may be treatable. Secondary tinnitus can be the result of excessive ear wax, middle ear problems, certain medications, or medical conditions. Treatment for tinnitus revolves around identifying and addressing its cause.
Meniere’s Disease is a disorder that affects the inner ear and can cause vertigo, ringing in the ears, and hearing loss. According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, Meniere’s disease affects about 615,000 people with about 45,500 new cases being diagnosed every year. This disease has no cure and affects individuals differently. In most people, the disease only affects one ear.
Meniere’s disease is a chronic condition, meaning that there is no cure, but many people experience success with treatment and lifestyle changes. ENTs generally treat this condition using medication, hearing aids, or surgery. They also recommend dietary changes that involve limiting salt, caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), since these substances can make the disease worse.
Ear problems are common in our society, but that doesn’t mean you have to deal with them alone. The problem may be as simple as wax buildup or an ear infection, but it could also be something more serious like Meniere’s Disease. Regardless of what is causing your discomfort, there are ways for you to get help and live a better life without the constant ringing in your ears!