Is it getting harder to hear during cold and flu season? There’s a scientific reason for that!
The average person gets 2-4 colds per year. Kids and older adults may get them even more frequently. They can last for days, and even after most of the symptoms have cleared up, the hearing challenges may persist. What causes this? Let’s take a look.
What Are Eustachian Tubes?
Eustachian tubes are passageways between the back of the nose and the middle ear. This tube is about as thick as pencil lead.
Their ultimate goal is to protect your eardrum and inner ear from damage. They do this in two important ways:
They help drain any excess liquid from infection or inflammation away from your eardrums. If they didn’t, this liquid would build up behind the eardrum, putting pressure on the eardrum until it burst.
Regulating Air Pressure
They help balance the air pressure in your ears. When you yawn, swallow or eat, they open briefly to let some air out. If they didn’t, the air pressure would build up and potentially damage the eardrum.
Your eustachian tubes are what you feel when you drive up into the mountains or fly in a plane.
What Pressure Does to Your Ears
If the pressure inside the ear is less than the pressure outside the ear, it creates a vacuum. This vacuum tries to suck the thin membrane of the eardrum toward the inner ear. Even if the eardrum doesn’t burst, this sucking is painful and causes distortions in the way we hear. If fluids buildup, it has the opposite effect, pushing the eardrum outward, creating similar distortions.
Eustachian Tubes When You Have a Cold
When you have a cold, allergies or sinus infection, these tubes become inflamed. The thin pencil lead width closes up so that no air can get in and no fluid can get out. This fluid buildup causes pain and hearing problems. But things can get worse.
The cold’s effect on the eustachian tubes may be very temporary. Most people are over a cold in a few days. Allergies and sinus infections can last much longer.
Even though the cause may be brief, the damage is done, the build-up of fluid can cause a secondary infection. When this happens the ear may:
- Fill full
- Cause dizziness
- Hearing problems
How are Eustachian Tube Problems Treated
Most of the time the tubes will open back up, and your immune system will knock out any infection that may have resulted during the episode. If you have certain medical conditions, you may be taking immunosuppressant drugs, which can affect your bodies natural ability to fight infection. These conditions include but are not limited to:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Crohn’s disease
- Organ transplant
Additionally, the immune system may be weak due to:
- Vitamin D deficiency
In these or other cases in which the symptoms persist, a professional may recommend:
- Over the counter painkillers
- Heating pads (use with caution)
- Surgery to release pressure
If you’re experiencing pain or ear stuffiness that won’t go away, you should consult a professional.