CHILD HEARING LOSS
As the parent of a child with newly diagnosed hearing loss, you will have many questions and concerns regarding the nature of this problem, its effects on your child’s future, treatment options, and resources. This brief guide will give you necessary initial information, and provide guidance about the availability of resources, and the respective roles of different care providers.
It is always difficult for parents to receive bad news about any aspect of their child’s health. Reacting with anger, grief, and even guilt are not unusual when finding out that your child is hearing-impaired. These feelings are best managed by discussing them with a family member, close friend, clergy, or mental health professional. At times, the feeling may also result in a degree of denial. Feel free to seek a second opinion, but it is unadvisable to delay further recommended diagnostic evaluations for your child. The best treatment for hearing loss of any degree is appropriate early intervention. Significant delays may result in irreversible harm to your child’s hearing, speech, language, and eventual educational development.
You will come into contact with many healthcare and rehabilitation specialists during the long-term management of your child’s hearing loss. Some of them will be involved early in the journey and again at intervals. Others may step in later on. The following are professionals you will encounter and the role each of them will play in managing your child’s hearing loss.
The audiologist is likely to be the first professional you encounter, and possibly the one who gives you the initial news regarding your child’s hearing loss. The audiologist will carry out behavioral or objective testing (such as auditory brainstem responses) or a combination of these approaches to determine the degree and type of hearing loss. The audiologist will also eventually recommend appropriate amplification, following a medical consultation. The audiologist will also provide your child with well-fitting ear molds along with the hearing aids, as he or she grows. The audiologist may also be the professional who provides you with information and referral to an early intervention program. Over time, the audiologist will provide periodic follow-ups to chart your child’s progress and to monitor his or her hearing loss.
Otologist, Otolaryngologist, or Pediatric Otolaryngologist (ENT Physician)
Upon diagnosis of hearing loss, your child will be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist, (otolaryngologist), or one who specializes in childhood ear and hearing problems. This physician’s initial role is to determine the specific nature of the underlying problem that may be at least partially causing the hearing loss. Additionally, the physician will also determine if the problem is medically or surgically treatable, and if so, provide the necessary medical or surgical treatment. Such treatments could include something relatively simple, like the placement of eardrum ventilation tubes, or more complex surgical procedures. The ENT specialist may also refer your child for additional diagnostic procedures such as imaging studies (X-rays, CT-scans, MRI scans) to further define the type and source of hearing loss. The doctor will also provide clearance for hearing aid fitting, after determining if no other intervention is indicated. If it is determined that your child needs a cochlear implant, the otolaryngologist, along with the audiologist, will carry out further tests and examinations, and will carry out the implant surgery.
Primary Care Physician: Pediatrician or Family Practitioner
Your child’s primary care physician may be either a pediatrician or a family practice doctor. If your child is not diagnosed with a hearing loss in the newborn period but develops hearing loss later in life, it is the responsibility of this doctor to make appropriate referrals to an ear, nose and throat specialist and an audiologist to rule out or diagnose hearing loss. Your child’s primary care doctor may also participate in the treatment of ear infections if they appear, or refer them to an otolaryngologist for treatment. The primary care physician or the otolaryngologist may also provide a referral to a doctor who specializes in medical genetics, to find out if your child’s hearing loss may be hereditary. That may help you determine if a similar hearing loss could occur in your other children.
Early Intervention Specialist
This professional is typically is someone with an education background. He or she can help you find resources in your community, define family members’ roles in early intervention and management of the hearing loss, and can help you deal with questions regarding future educational placement. This specialist will also help you deal with your observations and concerns about your child and give you information and support regarding your child’s educational needs in the future.
Speech/ Language Pathologist (SLP)
This professional will evaluate the impact of your child’s hearing loss on speech/language development, and monitor his/her progress, noting if progress with that development is falling behind. If this happens, the SLP may refer back to the audiologist or otolaryngologist to determine if any changes have occurred in your child’s hearing. The SLP will also help your child to learn proper speech production, including correct articulation of speech sounds. If you choose oral communication for your child, in addition to the speech language pathologist your child may also be treated by an auditory-verbal therapist, who can help your child acquire the full range of speech sounds and guide the family to additional medical or audiological treatments. The auditory-verbal therapist will also help the child’s family become familiar with appropriate speech/language, auditory, and cognitive developmental milestones you may expect for a child with hearing loss.
Finally, many other people can provide additional assistance for your hard-of-hearing child. Parents of older hard-of-hearing children, and hard-of-hearing adults, can share their experiences with you and may have suggestions for educational and recreational resources in the community.
Insight into otitis media and treatments
What is otitis media?
How does the ear work?
What are the symptoms?
Otitis media means “inflammation of the middle ear,” as a result of a middle ear infection. It can occur in one or both ears. Otitis media is the most frequent diagnosis for children who visit physicians for illness. It is also the most common cause of hearing loss in children. Although otitis media is most common in young children, it occasionally affects adults
Is it serious?
Yes, because of the severe earache and hearing loss it can cause. Hearing loss, especially in children, may impair learning capacity and even delay speech development. However, if it is treated promptly and effectively, hearing can almost always be restored to normal. Otitis media is also serious because the infection can spread to nearby structures in the head, especially the mastoid. (see the symptoms list) Immediate attention from your doctor is the best action.
How does the ear work?
The outer ear collects sounds. The middle ear is a pea-sized, air-filled cavity separated from the outer ear by the paper-thin eardrum. Inside the middle ear are three tiny ear bones. When sound waves strike the eardrum, it vibrates and sets the bones in motion that transmit to the inner ear. The inner ear converts vibrations to electrical signals and sends these signals to the brain. A healthy middle ear has the same atmospheric pressure as air outside of the ear, allowing free vibration. Air enters the middle ear through the narrow eustachian tube that connects the back of the nose to the ear
What causes otitis media?
Blockage of the eustachian tube during a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to a build-up of pus and mucusbehind the eardrum. This infection is called acute otitis media. The build-up of pressurized pus in the middle ear causes pain, swelling, and redness. Since the eardrum cannot vibrate properly, hearing problems may occur. Sometimes the eardrum ruptures, and pus drains out of the ear. More commonly, however, the pus and mucus remain in the middle ear due to the swollen and inflamed eustachian tube. This is called middle ear effusion or serous otitis media. Often after the acute infection has passed, the effusion remains lasting for weeks, months, or even years. This condition allows frequent recurrences of the acute infection and may cause difficulty in hearing.
What will happen at the doctor’s office?
During an examination, the doctor will use an otoscope to look at and assess the ear. The doctor checks for redness in the ear, and/or fluid behind the eardrum,, and to see if the eardrum moves. These are the signs of an ear infection. Two other tests may also be performed:
Audiogram—Tests if hearing loss has occurred by presenting tones at various pitches.
Tympanogram—Measures the air pressure in the middle ear to see how well the eustachian tube is working and how well the eardrum can move.
How should medication be taken?
It is important that all the medications be taken as directed and that you keep any follow-up visits. Often, antibiotics to fight the infection will make the earache go away rapidly, but the infection may need more time to clear up. Other medications that your doctor may prescribe include an antihistamine (for allergies), a decongestant (especially with a cold), or both. Sometimes the doctor may recommend a medication to reduce fever and/or pain. Special ear drops can ease the pain. Call your doctor if you have any questions about yours or your child’s medication, or if symptoms do not clear.
What other treatment may be necessary?
If your child experiences multiple episodes of acute otitis media within a short time, or hearing loss, or chronic otitis media lasts for more than three months, your physician may recommend referral to an otolaryngologist for placement of ventilation tubes, also called pressure-equalization (PE) tubes. This is a short surgical procedure in which a small incision is made in the eardrum, any fluid is suctioned out, and a tube is placed in the eardrum. This tube eventually will fall out on its own and the eardrum heals. There is usually an improvement in hearing and a decrease in further infections with PE tube placement.
Otitis media may recur as a result of chronically infected adenoids and tonsils. If this becomes a problem, your doctor may recommend removal of one or both. This can be done at the same time as ventilation tubes are inserted.
What are the symptoms?
In infants and toddlers, look for: Pulling or scratching at the ear, especially if accompanied by other symptoms; hearing problems; crying, irritability; fever; ear drainage.
In young children, adolescents, and adults look for: earache; feeling of fullness or pressure; hearing problems; dizziness; loss of balance, nausea, vomiting, ear drainage, and/or fever.
Remember, without proper treatment, damage from an ear infection can cause chronic or permanent hearing loss.
Insight into causes and treatment options
Who needs ear tubes and why?
What to expect after surgery
Painful ear infections are a rite of passage for children-by the age of five, nearly every child has experienced at least one episode. Most ear infections either resolve on their own (viral) or are effectively treated by antibiotics (bacterial). But sometimes, ear infections and/or fluid in the middle ear may become a chronic problem leading to other issues such as hearing loss, behavior, and speech problems. In these cases, insertion of an ear tube by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) may be considered.
What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are tiny cylinders placed through the ear drum (tympanic membrane) to allow air into the middle ear. They also may be called tympanostomy tubes, myringotomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or PE (pressure equalization) tubes.
These tubes can be made out of plastic, metal, or Teflon and may have a coating intended to reduce the possibility of infection. There are two basic types of ear tubes: short-term and long-term. Short- term tubes are smaller and typically stay in place for six months to a year before falling out on their own. Long-term tubes are larger and have flanges that secure them in place for a longer period of time. Long-term tubes may fall out on their own, but removal by an otolaryngologist is often necessary.
Who needs ear tubes and why?
Ear tubes are often recommended when a person experiences repeated middle ear infection (acute otitis media) or has hearing loss caused by the persistent presence of middle ear fluid (otitis media with effusion). These conditions most commonly occur in children, but can also be present in teens and adults and can lead to speech and balance problems, hearing loss, or changes in the structure of the ear drum. Other less common conditions that may warrant the placement of ear tubes are malformation of the ear drum or eustachian tube, Down Syndrome, cleft palate, and barotrauma (injury to the middle ear caused by a reduction of air pressure, usually seen with altitude changes such as flying and scuba diving).
Each year, more than half a million ear tube surgeries are performed on children, making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. The average age for ear tube insertion is one to three years old. Inserting ear tubes may:
Reduce the risk of future ear infection;
Restore hearing loss caused by middle ear fluid;
Improve speech problems and balance problems; and
Improve behavior and sleep problems caused by chronic ear infections.
How are ear tubes inserted in the ear?
Ear tubes are inserted through an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy. A myringotomy refers to an incision (a hole) in the ear drum or tympanic membrane. This is most often done under a surgical microscope with a small scalpel (tiny knife), but it can also be accomplished with a laser. If an ear tube is not inserted, the hole would heal and close within a few days. To prevent this, an ear tube is placed in the hole to keep it open and allow air to reach the middle ear space (ventilation).
What happens during surgery?
A light general anesthetic (laughing gas) is administered for young children. Some older children and adults may be able to tolerate the procedure without anesthetic. A myringotomy is performed and the fluid behind the ear drum (in the middle ear space) is suctioned out. The ear tube is then placed in the hole. Ear drops may be administered after the ear tube is placed and may be necessary for a few days. The procedure usually lasts less than 15 minutes and patients awaken quickly.
Sometimes the otolaryngologist will recommend removal of the adenoid tissue (lymph tissue located in the upper airway behind the nose) when ear tubes are placed. This is often considered when a repeat tube insertion is necessary. Current research indicates that removing adenoid tissue concurrent with placement of ear tubes can reduce the risk of recurrent ear infection and the need for repeat surgery.
What happens after surgery?
After surgery, the patient is monitored in the recovery room and will usually go home within an hour if no complications occur. Patients usually experience little or no postoperative pain but grogginess, irritability, and/or nausea from the anesthesia can occur temporarily.
Hearing loss caused by the presence of middle ear fluid is immediately resolved by surgery. Sometimes children can hear so much better that they complain that normal sounds seem too loud.
The otolaryngologist will provide specific postoperative instructions, including when to seek immediate attention and to set follow-up appointments. He or she may also prescribe antibiotic ear drops for a few days.
To avoid the possibility of bacteria entering the middle ear through the ventilation tube, physicians may recommend keeping ears dry by using ear plugs or other water-tight devices during bathing, swimming, and water activities. However, recent research suggests that protecting the ear may not be necessary, except when diving or engaging in water activities in unclean water such as lakes and rivers. Parents should consult with the treating physician about ear protection after surgery.
Consultation with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) may be warranted if you or your child has experienced repeated or severe ear infections, ear infections that are not resolved with antibiotics, hearing loss due to fluid in the middle ear, barotrauma, or have an anatomic abnormality that inhibits drainage of the middle ear.
Myringotomy with insertion of ear tubes is an extremely common and safe procedure with minimal complications. When complications do occur, they may include:
Perforation-This can happen when a tube comes out or a long-term tube is removed and the hole in the tympanic membrane (ear drum) does not close. The hole can be patched through a minor surgical procedure called a tympanoplasty or myringoplasty.
Scarring-Any irritation of the ear drum (recurrent ear infections), including repeated insertion of ear tubes, can cause scarring called tympanosclerosis or myringosclerosis. In most cases, this causes no problem with hearing.
Infection-Ear infections can still occur in the middle ear or around the ear tube. However, these infections are usually less frequent, result in less hearing loss, and are easier to treat-often only with ear drops. Sometimes an oral antibiotic is still needed.
Ear tubes come out too early or stay in too long-If an ear tube expels from the ear drum too soon (which is unpredictable), fluid may return and repeat surgery may be needed. Ear tubes that remain too long may result in perforation or may require removal by an otolaryngologist.
Insight into the proper care of the ears
Why does the body produce earwax?
What is the recommended method of ear cleaning?
When should a doctor be consulted?
Good intentions to keep ears clean may be risking the ability to hear. The ear is a delicate and intricate area, including the skin of the ear canal and the eardrum. Therefore, special care should be given to this part of the body. Start by discontinuing the use of cotton-tipped applicators and the habit of probing the ears.
Why does the body produce earwax?
Cerumen or earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of earwax and skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening. Old earwax is constantly being transported, assisted by chewing and jaw motion, from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out.
Earwax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, but in the outer one-third of the ear canal. So when a patient has wax blockage against the eardrum, it is often because he has been probing the ear with such things as cotton-tipped applicators, bobby pins, or twisted napkin corners. These objects only push the wax in deeper.
When should the ears be cleaned?
Under ideal circumstances, the ear canals should never have to be cleaned. However, that isn't always the case. The ears should be cleaned when enough earwax accumulates to cause symptoms or to prevent a needed assessment of the ear by your primary doctor. This condition is called cerumen impaction, and may cause one or more of the following symptoms:
Earache, fullness in the ear, or a sensation the ear is plugged
Partial hearing loss, which may be progressive
Tinnitus, ringing, or noises in the ear
Itching, odor, or discharge
What is the recommended method of ear cleaning?
To clean the ears, wash the external ear with a cloth, but do not insert anything into the ear canal.
Most cases of ear wax blockage respond to home treatments used to soften wax. Patients can try placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in the ear. Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also aid in the removal of wax.
Irrigation or ear syringing is commonly used for cleaning and can be performed by a physician or at home using a commercially available irrigation kit. Common solutions used for syringing include water and saline, which should be warmed to body temperature to prevent dizziness. Ear syringing is most effective when water, saline, or wax dissolving drops are put in the ear canal 15 to 30 minutes before treatment. Caution is advised to avoid having your ears irrigated if you have diabetes, a perforated eardrum, tube in the eardrum, or a weakened immune system.
Why shouldn't cotton swabs be used to clean earwax?
Wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. This is often caused by attempts to clean the ear with cotton swabs. Most cleaning attempts merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a blockage.
The outer ear is the funnel-like part of the ear that can be seen on the side of the head, plus the ear canal (the hole which leads down to the eardrum). The ear canal is shaped somewhat like an hourglass-narrowing part way down. The skin of the outer part of the canal has special glands that produce earwax. This wax is supposed to trap dust and dirt particles to keep them from reaching the eardrum. Usually the wax accumulates a bit, dries out, and then comes tumbling out of the ear, carrying dirt and dust with it. Or it may slowly migrate to the outside where it can be wiped off.
Are ear candles an option for removing wax build up?
No, ear candles are not a safe option of wax removal as they may result in serious injury. Since users are instructed to insert the 10" to 15"-long, cone-shaped, hollow candles, typically made of wax-impregnated cloth, into the ear canal and light the exposed end, some of the most common injuries are burns, obstruction of the ear canal with wax of the candle, or perforation of the membrane that separates the ear canal and the middle ear.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became concerned about the safety issues with ear candles after receiving reports of patient injury caused by the ear candling procedure. There are no controlled studies or other scientific evidence that support the safety and effectiveness of these devices for any of the purported claims or intended uses as contained in the labeling.
Based on the growing concern associated with the manufacture, marketing, and use of ear candles, the FDA has undertaken several successful regulatory actions, including product seizures and injunctions, since 1996. These actions were based, in part, upon violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that pose an imminent danger to health.
What can I do to prevent excessive earwax?
There are no proven ways to prevent cerumen impaction, but not inserting cotton-tipped swabs or other objects in the ear canal is strongly advised. If you are prone to repeated wax impaction or use hearing aids, consider seeing your doctor every 6 to 12 months for a checkup and routine preventive cleaning.
When should a doctor be consulted?
If the home treatments discussed in this leaflet are not satisfactory or if wax has accumulated so much that it blocks the ear canal (and hearing), a primary care provider may prescribe eardrops designed to soften wax, or he may wash or vacuum it out.
EARS AND ALTITUDE
Insight into making air travel more comfortable
Why do ears pop?
How can air travel cause hearing problems?
How to help babies unblock their ears?
Ear problems are the most common medical complaint of airplane travelers, and while they are usually simple, minor annoyances, they may result in temporary pain and hearing loss. Make air travel comfortable by learning how to equalize the pressure in the ears instead of suffering from an uncomfortable feeling of fullness or pressure.
Why do ears pop?
Normally, swallowing causes a little click or popping sound in the ear. This occurs because a small bubble of air has entered the middle ear, up from the back of the nose. It passes through the Eustachian tube, a membrane-lined tube about the size of a pencil lead that connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. The air in the middle ear is constantly being absorbed by its membranous lining and re-supplied through the Eustachian tube. In this manner, air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. If, and when, the air pressure is not equal the ear feels blocked.
The Eustachian tube can be blocked, or obstructed, for a variety of reasons. When that occurs, the middle ear pressure cannot be equalized. The air already there is absorbed and a vacuum occurs, sucking the eardrum inward and stretching it. Such an eardrum cannot vibrate naturally, so sounds are muffled or blocked, and the stretching can be painful. If the tube remains blocked, fluid (like blood serum) will seep into the area from the membranes in an attempt to overcome the vacuum. This is called "fluid in the ear," serous otitis or aero-otitis.
The most common cause for a blocked Eustachian tube is the common cold. Sinus infections and nasal allergies are also causes. A stuffy nose leads to stuffy ears because the swollen membranes block the opening of the Eustachian tube.
How can air travel cause hearing problems?
Air travel is sometimes associated with rapid changes in air pressure. To maintain comfort, the Eustachian tube must open frequently and wide enough to equalize the changes in pressure. This is especially true when the airplane is landing, going from low atmospheric pressure down closer to earth where the air pressure is higher.
Actually, any situation in which rapid altitude or pressure changes occur creates the problem. It may be experienced when riding in elevators or when diving to the bottom of a swimming pool. Deep sea divers, as well as pilots, are taught how to equalize their ear pressure. Anybody can learn the trick too.
How to unblock ears?
Swallowing activates the muscles that open the Eustachian tube. Swallowing occurs more often when chewing gum or when sucking on hard candies. These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent. Yawning is even better. Avoid sleeping during descent because swallowing may not occur often enough to keep up with the pressure changes.
If yawning and swallowing are not effective, pinch the nostrils shut, take a mouthful of air, and direct the air into the back of the nose as if trying to blow the nose gently. The ears have been successfully unblocked when a pop is heard. This may have to be repeated several times during descent.
Even after landing, continue the pressure equalizing techniques and the use of decongestants and nasal sprays. If the ears fail to open or if pain persists, seek the help of a physician who has experience in the care of ear disorders. The ear specialist may need to release the pressure or fluid with a small incision in the ear drum.
How to help babies unblock their ears?
Babies cannot intentionally pop their ears, but popping may occur if they are sucking on a bottle or pacifier. Feed the baby during the flight, and do not allow him or her to sleep during descent. Children are especially vulnerable to blockages because their Eustachian tubes are narrower than in adults.
Is the use of decongestants and nose sprays recommended?
Many experienced air travelers use a decongestant pill or nasal spray an hour or so before descent. This will shrink the membranes and help the ears pop more easily. Travelers with allergy problems should take their medication at the beginning of the flight for the same reason. However, avoid making a habit of nasal sprays. After a few days, they may cause more congestion than relief.
Decongestant tablets and sprays can be purchased without a prescription. However, they should be avoided by people with heart disease, high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, thyroid disease, or excessive nervousness. Such people should consult their physicians before using these medicines. Pregnant women should likewise consult their physicians first.
Tips to prevent discomfort during air travel
Consult with a surgeon on how soon after ear surgery it is safe to fly.
Postpone an airplane trip if a cold, sinus infection, or an allergy attack is present.
Patients in good health can take a decongestant pill or nose spray approximately an hour before descent to help the ears pop more easily.
Avoid sleeping during descent.
Chew gum or suck on a hard candy just before take-off and during descent.
When inflating the ears, do not use force. The proper technique involves only pressure created by the cheek and throat muscles.
HOW THE EAR WORKS
The ear has three main parts: the outer ear (including the external auditory canal), middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear (the part you can see) opens into the ear canal. The eardrum (tympanic membrane) separates the ear canal from the middle ear. The middle ear contains three small bones which help amplify and transfer sound to the inner ear. These three bones, or ossicles, are called the malleus, the incus, and the stapes (also referred to as the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup respectively). The inner ear contains the cochlea which changes sound into neurological signals and the auditory (hearing) nerve, which takes sound to the brain.
Any source of sound sends vibrations or sound waves into the air. These funnel through the ear opening, down the external ear canal, and strike your eardrum, causing it to vibrate. The vibrations are passed to the three small bones of the middle ear, which transmit them to the cochlea. The cochlea contains tubes filled with fluid. Inside one of the tubes, tiny hair cells pcik up the vibrations and convert them into nerve impulses. These impulses are delivered to the brain via the hearing nerve. The brain interprets the impulses as sound (music, voice, a car horn, etc.).
BETTER EAR HEALTH
Many medical conditions, such as those listed below, can affect your hearing health. Treatment of these and other hearing losses can often lead to improved or restored hearing. If left undiagnosed and untreated, some conditions can lead to irreversible hearing impairment or deafness. If you suspect that you or your loved one has a problem with their hearing, ensure optimal hearing healthcare by seeking a medical diagnosis from a physician.
The most common cause of hearing loss in children is otitis media, the medical term for a middle ear infection or inflammation of the middle ear. This condition can occur in one or both ears and primarily affects children due to the shape of the young Eustachian tube (and is the most frequent diagnosis for children visiting a physician). When left undiagnosed and untreated, otitis media can lead to infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear, a ruptured ear drum, and hearing loss. If treated appropriately, hearing loss related to otitis media can be alleviated.
Tinnitus is the medical name indicating "ringing in the ears," which includes noises ranging from loud roaring to clicking, humming, or buzzing. Most tinnitus comes from damage to the microscopic endings of the hearing nerve in the inner ear. The health of these nerve endings is important for acute hearing, and injury to them brings on hearing loss and often tinnitus. Hearing nerve impairment and tinnitus can also be a natural accompaniment of advancing age. Exposure to loud noise is probably the leading cause of tinnitus damage to hearing in younger people. Medical treatments and assistive hearing devices are often helpful to those with this condition.
An infection of the outer ear structures caused when water gets trapped in the ear canal leading to a collection of trapped bacteria is known as swimmer's ear or otitis externa. In this warm, moist environment, bacteria multiply causing irritation and infection of the ear canal. Although it typically occurs in swimmers, bathing or showering can also contribute to this common infection. In severe cases, the ear canal may swell shut leading to temporary hearing loss and making administration of medications difficult.
WHAT CAUSES SWIMMERS EAR
Insight into acute otitis externa
What causes swimmer’s ear?
What are the signs and symptoms?
How is swimmer’s ear treated?
Affecting the outer ear, swimmer’s ear is a painful condition resulting from inflammation, irritation, or infection. These symptoms often occur after water gets trapped in your ear, with subsequent spread of bacteria or fungal organisms. Because this condition commonly affects swimmers, it is known as swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear (also called acute otitis externa) often affects children and teenagers, but can also affect those with eczema (a condition that causes the skin to itch), or excess earwax. Your doctor will prescribe treatment to reduce your pain and to treat the infection.
What causes swimmer’s ear?
A common source of the infection is increased moisture trapped in the ear canal, from baths, showers, swimming, or moist environments. When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection of the ear canal. Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to reduce pain and eliminate any effect it may have on your hearing, as well as to prevent the spread of infection.
Other factors that may contribute to swimmer’s ear include:
Contact with excessive bacteria that may be present in hot tubs or polluted water
Excessive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs
Contact with certain chemicals such as hair spray or hair dye (Avoid this by placing cotton balls in your ears when using these products.)
Damage to the skin of the ear canal following water irrigation to remove wax
A cut in the skin of the ear canal
Other skin conditions affecting the ear canal, such as eczema or seborrhea
What are the signs and symptoms?
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are itching inside the ear and pain that gets worse when you tug on the auricle (outer ear). Other signs and symptoms may include any of the following:
Sensation that the ear is blocked or full
Intense pain that may radiate to the neck, face, or side of the head
Swollen lymph nodes around the ear or in the upper neck. Redness and swelling of the skin around the ear
If left untreated, complications resulting from swimmer’s ear may include:
Hearing loss. When the infection clears up, hearing usually returns to normal.
Recurring ear infections (chronic otitis externa). Without treatment, infection can continue.
Bone and cartilage damage (malignant otitis externa). Ear infections when not treated can spread to the base of your skull, brain, or cranial nerves. Diabetics and older adults are at higher risk for such dangerous complications.
To evaluate you for swimmer’s ear, your doctor will look for redness and swelling in your ear canal. Your doctor also may take a sample of any abnormal fluid or discharge in your ear to test for the presence of bacteria or fungus (ear culture) if you have recurrent or severe infections.
How is swimmer’s ear treated?
Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and use of eardrops that inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Mildly acidic solutions containing boric or acetic acid are effective for early infections.
How should ear drops be applied?
Drops are more easily administered if done by someone other than the patient.
The patient should lie down with the affected ear facing upwards.
Drops should be placed in the ear until the ear is full.
After drops are administered, the patient should remain lying down for a few minutes so the drops can be absorbed.
If you do not have a perforated eardrum (an eardrum with a hole in it) or a tympanostomy tube in your eardrum, you can make your own eardrops using rubbing alcohol or a mixture of half alcohol and half vinegar. These eardrops will evaporate excess water and keep your ears dry. Before using any drops in the ear, it is important to be sure you do not have a perforated eardrum. Check with your otolaryngologist if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, or injured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery.
For more severe infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to be applied directly to the ear. If the ear canal is swollen shut, a sponge or wick may be placed in the canal so the antibiotic drops will enter the swollen canal more effectively. Pain medication may also be prescribed. If you have tubes in your eardrum, a non oto-toxic (do not affect your hearing) topical treatment should be used. Topical antibiotics are effective for infection limited to the ear canal. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed if the infection goes beyond the skin of the ear canal.
Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor improvement or worsening, to clean the ear again, and to replace the ear wick as needed. Your otolaryngologist has specialized equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear. With proper treatment, most infections should clear up in 7-10 days.
Why do ears itch?
An itchy ear may be caused by a fungus or allergy, but more often from chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. Otolaryngologists also treat allergies, and they can often prescribe an eardrop, cream, or ointment to treat the problem.
Tips for prevention
A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture during swimming or bathing.
Use ear plugs when swimming
Use a dry towel or hair dryer to dry your ears
Have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist if you have itchy, flaky or scaly ears, or extensive earwax
Don’t use cotton swabs to remove ear wax. They may pack ear wax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal. This creates an ideal environment for infection.
Insight into causes and treatments for tinnitus
What causes tinnitus?
How is tinnitus treated?
What can help me cope?
Nearly 36 million Americans suffer from tinnitus or head noises. It may be an intermittent sound or an annoying continuous sound in one or both ears. Its pitch can go from a low roar to a high squeal or whine. Prior to any treatment, it is important to undergo a thorough examination and evaluation by your otolaryngologist and audiologist. An essential part of the treatment will be your understanding of tinnitus and its causes.
What causes tinnitus?
Tinnitus is commonly defined as the subjective perception of sound by an individual, in the absence of external sounds. Tinnitus is not a disease in itself but a common symptom, and because it involves the perception of sound or sounds, it is commonly associated with the hearing system. In fact, various parts of the hearing system, including the inner ear, are often responsible for this symptom. At times, it is relatively easy to associate the symptom of tinnitus with specific problems affecting the hearing system; at other times, the connection is less clear.
Most of the time, the tinnitus is subjective—that is, the internal sounds can be heard only by the individual. Occasionally, tinnitus is “objective,” meaning that the examiner can actually listen in with a stethoscope or an ear tube and hear the sounds the patient hears. Tinnitus may be caused by different parts of the hearing system. At times, for instance, it may be caused by excessive ear wax, especially if the wax touches the ear drum, causing pressure and changing how the ear drum vibrates. Other times, loose hair from the ear canal may come in contact with the ear drum and cause tinnitus.
Middle ear problems can also cause tinnitus, such as a middle ear infection or the buildup of new bony tissue around one of the middle ear bones which stiffens the middle ear transmission system (otosclerosis). Another cause of tinnitus from the middle ear may be muscle spasms of one of the two tiny muscles attached to middle ear bones. In this case, the tinnitus can be intermittent and at times, the examiner can also hear the patient’s sounds.
Most subjective tinnitus associated with the hearing system originates in the inner ear. Damage and loss of the tiny sensory hair cells in the inner ear (that can be caused by different factors) may be commonly associated with the presence of tinnitus. It is interesting to note that the pitch of the tinnitus often coincides with the area of the maximal hearing loss.
One of the preventable causes of inner ear tinnitus is excessive noise exposure. In some instances of noise exposure, tinnitus is the first symptom before hearing loss develops, so it should be considered a warning sign and an indication of the need for hearing protection in noisy environments. Certain common medications can also damage inner ear hair cells and cause tinnitus. These include non-prescription medications such as aspirin, one of the most common and best known medications that can cause tinnitus and eventual hearing loss. As we age, the incidence of tinnitus increases. Hearing loss associated with aging (also known as presbycusis) typically involves loss of and damage to the hair cells.
A special category is tinnitus that sounds like one’s heartbeat or pulse, also known as pulsatile tinnitus. At times, the presence of pulsatile tinnitus may signal the presence of a vascular tumor in the general vicinity of the middle and inner ear. When noting this type of tinnitus, it is advisable to consult a physician as soon as possible to rule out the presence of this type of vascular tumor.
Conditions that affect the hearing nerve can also cause tinnitus, the most common being benign tumors, typically originating from one of the balance nerves in close proximity to the hearing nerve. These are commonly referred to as acoustic neuroma or vestibular schwannoma. Tinnitus caused by an acoustic neuroma is usually unilateral and may or may not be accompanied initially by a hearing loss.
Tinnitus may also originate from lesions on or in the vicinity of the hearing portion of the brain, called the auditory cortex. These can be traumatic injuries with or without skull fracture, as well as whiplash-type injuries common in automobile accidents. Benign tumors known as meningiomas that originate from the tissue that protects the brain may also be a cause for tinnitus that originates from the brain.
There are a number of non-auditory conditions that can cause tinnitus, as well as lifestyle factors. Hypertension or high blood pressure, thyroid problems, and chronic brain syndromes can all cause tinnitus without any specific auditory problems. Stress and fatigue may cause tinnitus, or can contribute to an exacerbation of an existing case. Poor diet and lack of exercise that may cause blood vessel and heart problems may also either cause it or exacerbate an existing condition. It is also possible that tinnitus could be caused by food or beverage allergies, but these causes are not well documented and are difficult to sort out.
How is tinnitus treated?
In most cases, there is no specific, tried-and-true treatment for ear and head noise. If an otolaryngologist finds a specific cause for your tinnitus, he or she may be able to offer specific treatment to eliminate the noise. This determination may require extensive testing, including x-rays and other imaging studies, audiological tests, tests of balance function, and other laboratory work. However, most of the time, other than linking the presence of tinnitus to sensory hearing loss, specific causes are very difficult to identify. Although there is no specific medication for tinnitus, occasionally medications may be tried and some may help to reduce the noise.
What are some other tinnitus treatment options?
Alternative treatments, such as mindful meditation
Amplification (hearing aids)
Cochlear implants or electrical stimulation
Sound therapy/tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT)
Can other people hear the noise in my ears?
Not usually, but sometimes they are able to hear a certain type of tinnitus (typically the pulsatile tinnitus mentioned earlier). This is called “objective tinnitus,” and it is caused either by abnormalities in blood vessels around the outside of the ear, or by muscle spasms, which may sound like clicks or crackling inside the middle ear.
Can children be at risk for tinnitus?
It is relatively rare but not unheard of for patients under 18 years old to have tinnitus as a primary complaint. However, it is possible that tinnitus in children is significantly under-reported, in part because young children may not be able to express this complaint. Also, in children with congenital sensorineural hearing loss that may be accompanied by tinnitus, this symptom may be unnoticed because it is something that is constant in their lives. In fact, they may habituate to it; the brain may learn to ignore this internal sound. In pre-teens and teens, the highest risk for developing tinnitus is associated with exposure to high intensity sounds, specifically listening to music. In particular, virtually all teenagers use personal MP3 devices and nearly all hand-held electronic games are equipped with ear buds. It is difficult for a parent to monitor the level of sound children are exposed to. Therefore, the best and most effective mode of prevention of tinnitus in children is proper education relative to excessive sound exposure, as well as monitoring by parents or other caregivers.
Tips to lessen the severity of tinnitus
Avoid exposure to loud sounds and noises.
Get your blood pressure checked. If it is high, get your doctor’s help to control it.
Decrease your intake of salt. Salt impairs blood circulation.
Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea, cola, and tobacco.
Exercise daily to improve your circulation.
Get adequate rest and avoid fatigue.
Stop worrying about the noise. Recognize your head noise as an annoyance and learn to ignore it as much as possible. It is part of you.
What can help me cope?
Concentration and relaxation exercises can help to control muscle groups and circulation throughout the body. The increased relaxation and circulation achieved by these exercises can reduce the intensity of tinnitus in some patients.
Masking a head noise with a competing sound at a constant low level, such as a ticking clock or radio static (white noise), may make it less noticeable. Tinnitus is usually more bothersome in quiet surroundings. Products that generate white noise are available through catalogs and specialty stores.
Hearing aids may reduce head noise while you are wearing them and sometimes cause the noise to go away temporarily. If you have a hearing loss, it is important not to set the hearing aid at excessively loud levels, as this can worsen the tinnitus in some cases. However, a thorough trial before purchase of a hearing aid is advisable if your primary purpose is the relief of tinnitus.
Tinnitus maskers can be combined within hearing aids. They emit a competitive but pleasant sound that can distract you from head noise. Some people find that a tinnitus masker may even suppress the head noise for several hours after it is used, but this is not true for all users.