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Colds, Flu, Allergies and Your Ears

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Colds, flu and allergies have similar symptoms: sneezing, coughing, stuffy nose, watery, itchy eyes and a general feeling of sickness. But did you know your ears could be affected as well? Colds, flu and allergies can cause diminished hearing, a clogged or “full” feeling in the ears. While somewhat annoying, it’s usually a temporary condition.

The parts of the ear

Your ears are wonderful little “machines” with three parts that contribute not only to hearing, but to balance as well. The outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear all can be affected by illness and allergies.

The outer ear is the outside portion of your ear and the ear canal. When you’re sick, it may become swollen or red. An infection occurs most often in the middle ear, the location of the Eustachian tube. This part of your ear is like a pressure release valve, a drainage tube of sorts. When it is clogged by mucus, pressure builds up and it becomes difficult to hear. The inner ear is filled with fluid and is called the labyrinth. It also can become infected, leading to dizziness, ringing in the ear or loss of balance.

Allergies, viruses and hearing

Allergies and colds are the most likely to cause a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media. After a few days of a stuffy or runny nose, the lining of your middle ear is irritated. This can block the Eustachian tube, which can feel like popping in the ears, fullness or congestion. Sometimes this blockage results in a temporary hearing loss, called conductive hearing loss. It usually resolves itself once the cold or allergy is gone.

The flu also can lead to conductive hearing loss due to congestion. This also usually resolves itself. However, the flu might also cause a more serious hearing problem known as sensorineural hearing loss. This is when the inner ear nerves that transmit sound signals to the brain are damaged. It happens when the flu virus attacks the inner ear. Sensorineural hearing loss may be permanent if it’s not treated quickly, usually within two days. However, it’s difficult to diagnose, so if you have the flu and experience a sudden loss of hearing, see your health care provider as soon as possible.

Treatments for colds and allergies

Antihistamines and decongestants can help reduce ear pressure and the feeling of fullness. Sometimes a warm compress helps. If an infection is present, a doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Over-the-counter pain relievers can relieve earaches.

Because your ears, nose and throat are so closely connected, a problem in one area often leads to another. That’s why a stuffy nose and blocked ears often happen at the same time when you have a cold, the flu or allergies. Usually any loss of hearing is temporary, but if problems persist, a visit to your hearing professional is important.