Are your ears causing you discomfort? You may have an ear infection or an ear problem that is a symptom of another illness or even a serious disease. Either way, it can negatively affect your quality of life.
Many conditions are unrelated to our ears but can irritate our ears. Don’t take your ear problem lightly. It is essential to correctly diagnose the ear problem right away. Otherwise, it can lead to severe complications.
So, let’s look at 10 common conditions that affect the ears. Being aware of them can help you get appropriate treatment.
1. Cold and Sinus Infections
Although cold and sinus infections have many similar symptoms, they are not the same.
A cold is a mild, upper respiratory tract infection of the throat, nose, and sinuses. Viruses belonging to the rhinovirus group are mainly responsible for this, but it can be caused by other viruses, too. It is usually harmless.
Symptoms of a cold include a headache, runny or blocked nose, sneezing, cough, high fever, itchy eyes, sore throat, body aches, and so on. If your cold becomes severe, ear-related symptoms commonly seen are ear infections, blocked ears, and ear pain. At times, a cold can block the sinuses, leading to a sinus infection.
A sinus infection or sinusitis is the irritation and swelling of the sinuses and nasal cavities. A virus typically causes the illness, but at times, bacteria or even a fungus can be the culprit. Sometimes allergies, nasal polyps (noncancerous growths in the nasal lining) or even tooth infections can affect your sinuses. Sinus complications can give rise to ear infections, earaches or even tinnitus.
The pressure that builds up due to sinus congestion can affect the pressure in your ears. You may develop an ear infection if there is swelling or a blockage in the part of the middle ear called the eustachian tube. This blockage causes the buildup of fluid within it.
Tinnitus is when you have a ringing sound in your ears. The ringing may also be in the form of a roaring, clicking, buzzing or hissing sound. It may affect either one or both ears. It can be high- or low-pitched, soft or loud (1).
By treating the congestion, you can get relief from these symptoms. Using an inhaler or a nasal saline spray several times a day will ease your symptoms quickly.
2. Throat Infections
A throat infection can be challenging at times to get rid off. Some bacteria or a virus usually causes it. It can also be the result of an allergy, irritants or pollution, as well as some other internal ailment. Ear infections and ear pain are typical complications that occur when a throat infection advances to a more severe state (2).
Other common signs of a throat infection include inflamed tonsils, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, throat pain, and inflammation.
3. Ménière’s Disease
Ménière’s disease is an abnormality of the inner ear. Balancing and hearing are vital functions of your inner ear. The disease generally affects only one ear. Twelve out of every 1,000 people are affected by the disease worldwide. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that 0.2 percent of Americans are affected by the disease.
It typically affects people between the ages of 40 and 60. Although it is a chronic disease, treatments and lifestyle changes can help ease the symptoms (3).
The symptoms may subside for a few years and reappear in sudden spells or bursts. Symptoms usually seen are vertigo (dizziness), loss of hearing in the affected ear, tinnitus, loss of balance, nausea, headaches, a sense of fullness in the affected ear (aural fullness) and pain.
The definitive cause of Ménière’s disease is unknown. Scientists think that it may be linked to the mixing of the fluid within the ear or the level of fluid in the ear (4).
If you suffer from the disease, medications can help tackle the dizziness. Also, limiting your salt intake and using hearing aids can help manage the symptoms.
4. Crohn’s Disease
Crohn’s disease is characterized by swelling and irritation of the gastrointestinal tract. It is a type of chronic inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the body’s digestive system, from the mouth to the anus. The small intestine is most commonly affected.
Symptoms commonly seen in Crohn’s disease are frequent or recurring diarrhea, rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, abdominal cramps, fever, fatigue and low energy, and reduced appetite. Crohn’s patients may also suffer from severe deafness, according to a 2013 study published in Rheumatology (5). A previous study published in “The American Journal of Gastroenterology” in 1998 reported a hearing loss in both ears without any indications of intestinal disease in a patient with Crohn’s disease (6).
The exact reason for Crohn’s disease is not known. However, many factors like heredity, the effect of an over-reactive immune system on your gastrointestinal tract, and environmental factors (bacteria, viruses or other unknown factors contribute to this condition (7).
Mumps is a contagious viral disease caused by the mumps virus, also known as paramyxovirus (8). It affects the parotid gland, which is the primary salivary gland located in front of and below your ears.
Common symptoms include swollen and inflamed salivary glands under one or both ears (parotitis), fever, headaches, tiredness, loss of appetite, and muscle aches.
Loss of hearing can also occur with mumps, and in rare cases, this hearing loss can be permanent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (9). This was more common before scientists developed the mumps vaccine. So care must be taken to do hearing tests after mumps infection. Mumps, and in turn the risk of hearing loss, can easily be prevented by getting an MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine (10).
Measles, or rubeola, is a serious viral disease caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family. The virus affects the respiratory system and is highly contagious. It spreads mainly through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. You can also catch the infection through contact with infected mucus and saliva (11).
Measles is the leading cause of death among children worldwide. In 2016, the World Health Organization reported that there were 89,780 measles deaths globally (12).
It can easily be averted by getting a safe and effective measles vaccine. This vaccine is a must for children.
The symptoms of measles start with a high fever, runny nose, cough, red and watery eyes, and small white spots inside cheeks. Other symptoms include muscle aches, sore throat and the classic red, itchy ‘measles rash’ that usually develops on the head and gradually appears on other parts of the body.
Researchers have shown that there is an association between the measles virus and the ear condition known as otosclerosis. Otosclerosis is the abnormal bone remodeling – a lifelong process in which old bone tissue is absorbed and new bone tissue is formed – in your inner ear. The bone gets stuck and is unable to vibrate. This modification affects the capacity of sound waves to travel from your middle ear to your inner ear and thereby your hearing is affected.
The Journal for Oto-Rhino-Laryngology, Head and Neck Surgery reported in a 2008 study that the measles virus could be an activating factor for the development of otosclerosis (13). Hearing loss is a common complication of the measles infection in areas in which the measles vaccination is rarely used (14).
Meningitis is the swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation is mainly caused by bacterial and viral infections. At times, particular microbes, fungi, parasites or even conditions like cancer, lupus, a brain injury or surgery can give rise to meningitis.
You should know the specific cause of meningitis to treat it effectively. In some cases, meningitis may clear up by itself, but at other times it can be life-threatening. Seek medical help at the earliest sign of the illness.
Possible signs of meningitis include a sudden high fever, unusual headaches with nausea, difficulty concentrating, seizures, lack of appetite, trouble waking up or drowsiness, light sensitivity and a skin rash.
8. Heart or Blood Vessel Problems
If you hear a hammering or swishing noise in your ears that is rhythmic to a beat, you may have an unusual form of tinnitus called pulsatile tinnitus. It’s unlike regular tinnitus, which is a ringing noise in your ears that may also sound like a kind of roaring, clicking, buzzing or hissing sound. It may affect either one or both ears (18).
In fact, the sound in pulsatile tinnitus is very real and is a magnified sound of the blood flowing through your arteries. The primary symptom of this ailment is the heartbeat-like sound you hear in your ears. You may also feel light-headed or have a racing heart sensation.
If you experience these symptoms along with chest pain, seek medical help immediately. The reasons for these symptoms are related to blood circulation problems and may include high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (blockage of arteries by cholesterol, fats or other wastes), head or neck tumors and abnormal capillaries. In order to treat this type of tinnitus, the underlying problem needs to be correctly diagnosed and then treated. It can also lead to sleeping problems.
9. Hormonal Imbalance
It may surprise you that alterations in your hormone levels can also cause ear-related problems. Some hormonal issues like thyroid problems can occur in men and women. However, an imbalance in female hormones can cause ear disorders in women.
Tinnitus is an ear problem commonly found in individuals with thyroid problems (19). When the butterfly-shaped thyroid gland, located at the lower part of your neck doesn’t function properly, you can experience symptoms like low energy levels, weight gain, and depression. Symptoms depend upon the type of thyroid problem you may have. Consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
Hormonal variations in women
Do you know that hormonal imbalances in women can also give rise to ear problems like vestibular disorders and Ménière’s disease? Although health professionals have always suggested that there could be a possible connection, very little research has been done on this aspect. So, the exact link and the percentage of women affected by this is not known.
Hormonal changes in women can lead to varying symptoms. Some inner ear symptoms have been linked to female hormonal imbalance. Some of them are hearing loss, vertigo, an increase in tinnitus, aural fullness and ear pressure. These symptoms and their causative conditions vary from person to person. It is best to seek medical help to identify and treat the problem.
Vestibular neuronitis or neuritis is a disorder that can cause sudden severe bouts of vertigo. It is due to swelling of the vestibular nerve that controls balance. Symptoms of vestibular neuritis include sudden vertigo attacks that can last for 7 to 10 days, followed by milder vertigo for several weeks, nausea, vomiting and nystagmus (rapid jerking movement of the eye in one direction). Medication can ease symptoms of vertigo as well as vomiting (20).
10. Brain Tumors
Cancers of the brain can occur at any age and tend to stay in the brain. However, such cancers are seen more commonly in children and older people.
There are different types of brain tumors, and the symptoms may vary depending on the type of brain tumor. Hearing loss is often linked with brain tumors. Some other common symptoms include headaches, seizures, loss of motor control, loss of vision, fatigue, depression, and behavioral changes (21). Seek medical help immediately if you notice these symptoms.
So in a nutshell, to sum up, don’t take your ear problem lightly and seek a medical professional to treat it right!