Why hearing loss can affect much more than your hearing

Hearing loss affects much more than your hearing. If untreated, it can lead to social isolation, anxiety, depression and even falls or reduced independence. Yet there's almost always a solution - it's just a question of asking for help. What are you waiting for?

Ear facts

Your ear can be broadly divided into three parts . From a doctor's perspective, the 'outer ear' goes from the bit you can see down your ear canal to your eardrum. This is where sound waves get focused and directed on to your eardrum, making it vibrate. This vibration is passed through tiny bones attached to your eardrum, through your middle ear to your hearing nerves. Your inner ear contains your balance mechanisms - disrupting these causes nausea or a kind of room-spinning dizziness called vertigo.

What is Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD)?

If your doctor tells you that you have 'Eustachian tube dysfunction', it's not just another long medical term to hide the fact that they don't know what's going on! Your Eustachian tube connects your inner ear with your throat, letting you equalise the pressure between the two. This relieves the pressure on your eardrum, which separates your outer ear from your middle ear. If your Eustachian tube gets blocked with gunk produced when you have a cold, you can't equalise the pressure between the middle and outer ears. This can give rise to blocked ears, reduced hearing and sometimes pain. It's the same principle as when you go up in an aeroplane and your ears block and hurt. It usually settles when the cold goes, but decongestant tablets or nose drops may help (speak to your pharmacist).

Why we need earwax - and how not to clean it out!

Earwax is another common cause of reduced hearing. Earwax serves a very useful purpose - it protects the delicate lining of your ear canal, picking up germs and dirt. Your ears act as a 'conveyor belt', naturally removing earwax all the time. If too much builds up, it can get stuck and build up so it blocks the ear canal which carries sound waves to your hearing nerves. Cleaning your ears with cotton buds is a big no-no - at best, it pushes wax further in and makes it clog together so your ears can't remove it. At worst, the cotton buds can damage the lining of the ear canal (causing inflammation and infection) or even perforate your eardrum. The same goes, as if it needed saying, for scratching that itch inside your ear with a pen or the arm of your glasses - yes, I have seen people come in with the consequences of both of these! Softening drops (including olive oil) can soften the wax enough for your ears to move it out, but if this doesn't work after several days, see your practice nurse in case you need your ears syringed. Remember that using drops can make the blockage worse at first.

Age-related hearing loss

As you get older, you're more likely to have age-related hearing loss. As many as one in three people aged 40-69 have hearing problems and one in 10 fail a hearing test - but only one in 50 of them use a hearing aid. That means there are about four million people in the UK who could benefit from a hearing aid but don't wear one.

It makes me very sad when I discover people haven't been checked to see if they need a hearing aid because they're embarrassed, or think they'll make them look old. It's just as bad when I find they haven't been using the one they've got.

These days, hearing aids are mostly 'digital' - a world away from older 'analogue' hearing aids which so many people found bulky and unsightly. What's more, digital hearing aids are available on the NHS, and you don't necessarily need to go to hospital to get one. In many areas, high street stores have contracts with the NHS. You can get an initial free test, and be referred from the GP for a hearing aid assessment if this shows a problem. They'll provide a follow-up service, including battery changes - all guaranteed at the same quality as your NHS hospital clinic

Listen up! Two hearing 'red flags':

  • If you suddenly lose hearing completely in one ear, see your GP urgently, Getting rapid treatment could stop it being permanent
  • Loss of hearing in one ear with tinnitus on one side, can be a sign of a tumour on the hearing nerve.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.