Ear Infections

How to Protect Your Ears During Flu Season


Cold and flu season is in full swing. At some point, all of us have experienced the chills, the congestion, the fatigue, and the nagging cough. Among these symptoms is the “plugged ear” sensation that occurs from congestion build up in the sinuses and ears. Like the other symptoms, the hearing loss is usually temporary, but it can linger and only adds to the misery of being sick.

Why Do We Experience Hearing Loss When We Are Sick?

When you have a cold or the flu, congestion builds up in the middle ear. This makes it difficult for the sound waves to travel through the ear. The Eustachian tubes can also become blocked. The Eustachian tube is a narrow tube connecting the back of the nose and the middle ear. It is filled with air and protects, ventilates, and drains mucus from the middle ear. Blockage of the Eustachian tube causes the lining of the middle ear to absorb the trapped air. This creates a negative pressure that pulls the eardrum inward. When this occurs, people may experience muffled hearing, pain, tinnitus, reduced hearing, pressure, or problems with balance.  The good news is that hearing usually returns to normal within a few days.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss During Cold & Flu Season

There are a few things you can do to help minimize your chances of getting a bad cold or the flu:

  1. Take Vitamin C to help boost your immune system.

  2. Get the flu vaccine! Even if it does not offer 100% protection from the flu, it will at least help minimize symptoms if you do get sick.

  3. Wash your hands often.

  4. Keep your ears warm and dry when you are outside in cold temperatures.

  5. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise to improve blood circulation.

  6. Avoid others who are sick.

If you do get sick, a decongestant will help minimize the congestion. If your ears feel “plugged” for more than a few days or you have pain, contact your doctor for a possible ear infection. For more information, contact us.

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction: Definition, Symptoms and Treatments

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What is an Eustachian Tube?

The Eustachian tube is a narrow tube connecting the back of the nose and the middle ear. Normally, the tube is filled with air and opens when we yawn, swallow or chew. It functions to protect the middle ear from pathogens; to ventilate the middle ear, which allows the eardrum to work and vibrate properly; and, to help drain mucus from the middle ear.

What is Eustachian Tube Dysfunction?

Chronic blockage of the Eustachian tube is called Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD). This can occur from inflammation of the mucous membranes from allergies or a sinus, nose or ear infection, or excessive lymphoid tissue around the tube. In some cases, the Eustachian tube just does not open or close properly. Young children (especially ages 1 to 6 years) are at particular risk because they have very narrow Eustachian tubes. Also, enlarged adenoids can block the opening of the Eustachian tube.

Blockage of the Eustachian tube causes the lining of the middle ear to absorb the trapped air. This creates a negative pressure that pulls the eardrum inward. When this occurs, people may experience muffled hearing, pain, tinnitus, reduced hearing, pressure, or problems with balance. Long-term ETD has been associated with damage to the middle ear and the eardrum from fluid buildup. If bacteria contaminates this fluid, a middle ear infection occurs. If chronic ETD remains untreated, it can lead to hearing loss.

Treatment of Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Blocked Eustachian tubes can be relieved by nasal sprays, decongestants and antihistamines, which reduce inflammation and congestion. Medications or shots that treat allergies may also help. People can also relieve pressure by pinching their noses and "popping their ears," although this is not recommended if a cold or sinus infection is present because it can drive mucus into the middle ear and cause an ear infection. Recurrent Eustachian Tube Dysfunction requires the surgical placement of ear tubes, which allow pressure to equalize in the middle ear.

If you have experienced symptoms of ETD, contact our office or consult with your physician.

Ear Infections, Hearing Loss, and Speech Development

What is Otitis Media?

Otitis media, also simply referred to as a middle ear infection, is inflammation in the middle ear (the area behind the eardrum) that is usually associated with the buildup of fluid. When infection occurs, the condition is called "acute otitis media." This is when a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses, lead to the accumulation of pus and mucus behind the eardrum, blocking the Eustachian tube (the tube from the back of the ear to the mouth). Fluid can remain in the ear for weeks to many months. 

Otitis media is the most frequently diagnosed disease in infants and young children.

75% of children experience at least one episode of otitis media
by their third birthday.
Almost 1/2 of these children will have
three or more ear infections during their first 3 years of life.

Why is Otitis Media So Common in Children?

Children are more susceptible to ear infections because of the location of their ear canal. Until the age of 6 or 7 years, a child’s Eustachian tube is small and horizontal, making it susceptible to fluid build-up and blockages due to large adenoids and infections. As the skull matures and grows, the Eustachian tube becomes more vertical in position and more natural drainage takes place.

Otitis Media and Hearing Loss

All children with middle ear infection or fluid have some degree of hearing loss. Generally, the type of hearing loss associated with ear infections is temporary. 

The average hearing loss in ears with fluid is 24 decibels (the level of a very soft whisper). At this level of hearing loss, soft sounds, such as "S" and "Sh" may not be heard. Thicker fluid can cause much more loss, up to 45 decibels (the range of conversational speech).

Hearing loss becomes a bigger issue when otitis media occurs over and over again, and damage to the eardrum, bones of the ear, or even the hearing nerve can occur and cause a more permanent, sensorineural hearing loss.

Otitis Media and Speech Development

Essentially, a child experiencing hearing loss from middle ear infections will hear muffled sounds and misunderstand speech rather than incur a complete hearing loss. Even so, the consequences can be significant.

Communication development is at its peak from 12 months through four years of age. Children learn speech and language from listening to other people talk. Fluctuating hearing loss during that time interferes with learning speech and language. Similar words may sound the same. They may not hear final consonants, past tense, and plural word endings. Therefore, they may not learn how to say words properly. 

Otitis media without infection presents a special problem because symptoms of pain and fever are usually not present. Therefore, weeks and even months can go by before parents suspect a problem. During this time, the child may miss out on some of the information that can influence speech and language development, especially during the formative preschool years.

When to Seek Help

Ear infections require immediate attention, most likely from a pediatrician or otolaryngologist (ear doctor). If your child has frequently recurring infections and/or chronic fluid in the middle ear, additional specialists, such as an audiologist or speech-language pathologist, should be consulted.

Children experiencing recurring ear infections or fluid build-up should be closely monitored for any signs of speech and language delay. It has been reported that 1/3 of children receiving therapy for speech and language delay have a reported history of recurrent ear infections. Prevention, early recognition, and treatment of ear infections is important.

If you have any questions, wish to speak with Dr. Cameron and/or Dr. Garber about your concerns, or wish to make an appointment to have your child tested for hearing loss, please contact us.