Help! I Can't Hear
An ear infection, sinus infection, or even ear wax can cause some temporary hearing loss. But there are more complicated causes of hearing loss that require a trip to the doctor.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Ear infection, sinus infection, and ear wax are common, but temporary, causes of hearing loss. These types of hearing loss are called conductive hearing loss because they do not affect the hearing nerve. They just temporarily block sound from getting to the nerve.
The other common type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is caused when the hearing nerve itself is affected. Once you have hearing nerve damage, it may not get better. Common causes are aging and being exposed to too much loud noise.
"For many people, the first sign of hearing loss is when they have trouble hearing at work or in a crowded restaurant. In many cases it is a family member who complains first because the TV volume has gone way up," says Elizabeth H. Toh, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.
Symptoms of Common Hearing Problems
The most common causes of hearing loss vary depending on your age. "For younger people, ear infections, ear wax, or loud noise exposure are common causes of hearing loss in one or both ears. For older age groups, gradual decrease in hearing due to aging is the most common cause. This type of hearing loss usually affects both ears," says Dr. Toh. In children, ear infections are the most common cause of hearing loss.
Here are some common hearing loss causes and their symptoms:
- Sinus infection.You might experience this hearing loss in one or both ears, and it could be accompanied by headache and nasal congestion. Once a sinus infection or head cold clears, your hearing should go back to normal.
- Ear infection.This cause of hearing loss is more likely to be in one ear. You may feel ear pressure and ear pain. Children who have ear infections may develop fluid in their ears that causes significant hearing loss.
- Ear wax buildup.Hearing loss from ear wax in one or both ears may build gradually or come on suddenly if water gets in your ears and mixes with the wax. You may also have a sensation of pressure in your ear.
- Sensorineural hearing loss.This type of hearing loss does not usually cause pain or pressure in your ears, but you may have ringing in the ears, called tinnitus, which frequently goes along with nerve damage.
What to Do if You Have Hearing Loss
Hearing loss that goes along with age, sinus infection, ear infection, or ear wax is not usually a hearing emergency. "If you think you have wax in your ears and you don't have any history of ear surgery or a hole in your ear drum, you could try some over-the-counter wax softener and irrigation before going to the doctor," says Toh.
One caution about ear wax is to never try to remove it by "candling." Ear candles are cones that are placed into the ear and lit in an attempt to remove wax. This technique is dangerous and can cause severe burns to the face and ear. There is also a danger of tearing or puncturing the eardrum. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put out a warning that ear candling is neither a safe nor effective way to remove ear wax.
There are hearing loss symptoms may indicate a hearing emergency, and they require a prompt call to your doctor:
- Sudden hearing loss in one or both ears
- Hearing loss with severe ear pain or drainage from the ear
- Hearing loss associated with dizziness
- Hearing loss in one ear with sudden development of ringing
- Hearing loss associated with any injury
- Hearing loss that remains after an ear infection or sinus infection has gone away
Other symptoms of hearing loss should be checked by your doctor on a non-emergency basis, with a good ear exam and a hearing test. In some cases, your primary care doctor may suggest that you see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. Another hearing specialist you may need to see is an audiologist.
Ear infection, sinus infection, and ear wax are common causes of hearing loss that rarely cause permanent damage. You can try over-the-counter kits for simple ear wax removal, but all other causes of hearing loss should be evaluated by your doctor.
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