It happens out of nowhere. Sitting at your desk at your office, all of the sudden you lose hearing in one of your ears for a few seconds before everything returns to normal. Or maybe you hear a ringing in your ear on and off for a few days, and then it disappears.
When most people think of ear issues, they think of ear infections, hearing loss and deafness. However, despite being one of the smallest structures in your body, ears are incredibly complex and subject to many complications.
Now that the latest Apple Watch monitors the sound levels in your environment and warns you when the noise reaches a level that could damage your hearing, we’re diving into the topic of hearing, including various medical conditions that affect it.
So, is that ringing in your ear normal or a sign of something more serious? Here are five ear problems you may not know about, and what to do if you suspect you have an ear disorder.
You temporarily lose hearing in one or both of your ears
What it is: Acute noise-induced hearing loss or obstructive hearing loss
If you’ve ever been to a loud concert, you may have experienced noise-induced hearing loss before. Acute noise-induced hearing loss occurs when you temporarily lose your hearing in response to exposure to loud noise. It can make environmental sounds seem muffled or make conversations sound stifled. Though temporary on its own, repeatedly experiencing acute noise-induced hearing loss can lead to permanent hearing loss in the long run.
Obstructive, or conductive, hearing loss occurs when something physically blocks sound from reaching your hearing structures. This can happen when you have too much ear wax built up in your ears, if you have a foreign object lodged in your ear, or if you have some sort of injury to your inner, middle or outer ear. If you have this type of hearing loss, you may also experience pain or a feeling of fullness in your ear.
You hear ringing in your ears that comes and goes
What it is: Tinnitus
Tinnitus refers to the perception of noise or ringing in your ears. Perception is the key word, because you aren’t actually hearing a real sound when you experience tinnitus. Often a symptom of other ear disorders, tinnitus is not a condition on its own. It can signify age-related hearing loss, an ear injury or infection, a circulatory system disorder or something else.
You may hear phantom noises other than ringing, including buzzing, clicking, roaring, humming or hissing. The volume level of the phantom noises may vary or stay constant, and the noises may come and go completely.
You’re profoundly annoyed hearing your coworker eating a snack
What it is: Misophonia
This disorder involves an emotional response to sounds that don’t truly disturb most people, such as chewing, breathing and tapping. Everyone occasionally gets annoyed by repetitive sounds, but people with misophonia experience an upsetting emotional reaction that often includes rage and resentment. They may think that others are intentionally making sounds to upset them.
People with misophonia may act out in response to a noise that someone else is making and realize later that their reaction was extreme or inappropriate. If you often experience intense feelings — remember, more than just slight annoyance — in response to various sounds, you may want to talk to a doctor.
You hear ringing in your ears and experience vertigo
What it is: Ménière’s disease
This disorder of the inner ear is characterized by tinnitus and bouts of vertigo (dizziness), and it can contribute to progressive hearing loss. Ménière’s disease is considered a chronic condition, and doctors don’t yet know the exact cause. However, fluid buildup and problems with fluid drainage seem to be a contributing factor. In most cases, Ménière’s disease only affects one ear and can cause a feeling of fullness in the affected ear, a symptom referred to as aural fullness.
You can hear your own pulse, and it’s incessant
What it is: Rhythmic tinnitus
Also called pulsatile tinnitus, this is a rare form of regular tinnitus. Rhythmic tinnitus, in contrast to regular tinnitus, occurs in response to a physical sound — that of your blood circulating through your arteries. Doctors sometimes call this condition “objective tinnitus” because they can hear the sound, whereas regular tinnitus is subjective because only the patient can hear it.
If you have rhythmic tinnitus, you might notice that the pitch of the sound correlates to your pulse. You may also feel like you can never escape the sound, especially when lying down or pressing your ear to something.
What should I do if I think I have an ear disorder?
If you suspect something is wrong with your ears or hearing, skip the Google-fest and see a doctor as soon as you can. Hearing disorders, especially hearing loss, can creep up slowly, showing no symptoms until the disorder has progressed to a difficult state.
In most cases, you’ll need to see an otolaryngologist or audiologist for ear and hearing disorders. If you go to your primary care doctor, you’ll likely get referred out to one of those ear specialists. If you have an ear disorder that involves or has induced sensorineural hearing loss, ask your doctor about hearing aids, assistive listening devices or cochlear implants.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.