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AARP The Magazine

4 Common Types of Hearing Problems

Why they occur and what you can do about them

2. You have a feeling of fullness in your ears

Why it happens: Excess mucus from an infection or allergy can block the eustachian tube, the small canal that connects the throat to the middle ear and regulates airflow, particularly when you swallow or yawn. Besides feeling fullness and muffled hearing, you might also experience popping, pain or tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or have difficulty maintaining balance. A buildup of earwax can cause that feeling of fullness, too.

How to fix it: "Most eustachian tube dysfunctions improve when the infection goes away," says David S. Haynes, M.D., Cochlear Implant Program director at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. If not, a doctor can prescribe decongestants and antihistamines to help reduce inflammation. As for earwax, any health care provider can remove it with a suction device, irrigation tool or nasal spray, Haynes says. Don't try to do it yourself, though, as you can easily damage your eardrum.

Red flags: Hearing loss with fullness that's accompanied by significant pain could be otitis externa, or swimmer's ear, an infection of the ear canal that carries sound to the eardrums. The infection is typically caused by water in the ear, which breaks down the skin and provides a breeding ground for bacteria. Otitis externa is usually treated with ear drops that contain an antibiotic.

3. Your hearing loss is sudden

Why it happens: Swelling or fluid buildup as a result of a virus or ear infection can affect hair cells and nerves, as can taking high doses of certain medications, including aspirin, IV antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and diuretics.

How to fix it: "If an audiogram shows nerve injury, hearing can be recovered if steroids are given within 72 hours of the onset of hearing loss," says Okun. Steroids reduce inflammation and prevent swelling of the auditory nerve, which, if left untreated, can cause permanent hearing loss. Loss of hearing because of use of certain drugs — a condition called ototoxicity — requires an immediate change in your medication, if possible.

Red flags: See your physician if you have sudden hearing loss. In rare circumstances, this could be the sign of a tumor pressing on the auditory nerve. Other uncommon causes include syphilis, Lyme disease, autoimmune disorders and thyroid disease.

4. Hearing loss fluctuates and is accompanied by dizziness, nausea or trouble with balance

Why it happens: You may have Ménière's disease, an uncommon disorder with no known cause that alters the amount, flow and chemical composition of endolymph, the fluid in the inner ear. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, one in 500 people in the United States has the condition.

How to fix it: Ménière's can't be cured, but it can be treated. A low-sodium diet and a prescribed diuretic can help reduce fluid in the inner ear. In rare cases, doctors may recommend injecting a steroid into the middle ear to reduce inflammation, or inserting a tube into the ear to drain excess fluid.

Red flags: Dizziness accompanied by fluctuating hearing loss can also signal other medical conditions such as a change in blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, dehydration and anxiety. If you're experiencing this type of hearing loss, consult your primary care physician or an ear, nose and throat specialist right away.

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