Are your ears prepared for spring?

Contributed by | Monday, February 29th, 2016

One look at the calendar tells us spring is upon us, even if looking out our window tells us otherwise. For all of the joys spring brings us, from the first crocuses emerging to feeling the warmth of the sun on our skin for the first time in months, it also brings rain, erratic temperature shifts and seasonal allergies. All of which can play havoc with your hearing.

A single tulip in bloom
As the tulips emerge in the
spring, so do the allergies.

The inner ear is filled with fluid, and that fluid is extremely sensitive to the sudden changes in barometric pressure that occur in springtime. When the barometric pressure drops rapidly, that means the pressure outside your ears goes down before the pressure inside your ears can acclimate. The result is a pressure imbalance, which can cause a sensation of fullness or popping in the ears. Seasonal allergies exacerbate the problem by causing a narrowing of the Eustachian tube, making equalization of pressure even more difficult.

Those with Meniere’s disease, in particular, can suffer greatly during spring weather changes. Normally fluids in the inner ear circulate; problems occur when the overproduction of fluid that characterizes Meniere’s disease actually backs up under the increased pressure and causes the endolymphatic chambers to bulge. The result is discomfort, fullness and pressure along with the potential of other unpleasant symptoms such as tinnitus and vertigo.

Allergies are another unwanted accompaniment to spring. While most think of allergies as sneezing and sinus pressure, it is important to remember that the ears and sinuses are interconnected.

"People take it for granted that allergies cause sneezing in the nose and itching in the eyes. Yet they seem surprised to learn allergies inevitably affect their ears as well," said Dr. Ronna Fisher, Au.D.

Seasonal allergies affect between 10 and 30 percent of adults in the U.S. and as many as 40 percent of children, which means as many as 60 million people in the U.S. suffer from not only sneezing, itchy eyes and sinus pressure, but ear pressure as well. The warm, wet weather of spring causes trees to produce more pollen. For those who are allergic, the immune system reacts by producing antibodies. Those antibodies release a substance called histamine, which leads to increased mucus production. Unfortunately allergies also cause swelling of the Eustachian tubes, meaning they don’t open as they should. This causes the Eustachian tubes to become clogged with the excess fluid and wax, and the result is a feeling of fullness and pressure in the ears that can negatively affect hearing.

Over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants might also help relieve the problem of excess fluid if it is caused by allergies. Some other remedies that can reduce fluid build-up include exercising, eating a low sodium diet, or eating fruits and vegetables that act as diuretics; grapes, watermelon, celery, bell peppers and asparagus all offer health benefits that include reducing fluid retention.

Since continuous pressure in the middle ear could result in permanent hearing loss, if you are experiencing any changes in hearing be sure to see a hearing healthcare professional or ENT to make sure the problem isn’t something more serious.

The excess fluid build-up as a result of allergies, barometric pressure changes or inner ear conditions can not only cause a feeling of fullness or pressure, but can also cause conductive hearing loss as a result of sound being prevented from traveling to the cochlea. Another risk of excessive fluid build-up when the Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning properly is ear infections; the increased fluid provides an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive.

Spring also brings challenges for those with hearing aids, as the rise in allergens and wet weather means paying closer attention to maintenance and upkeep of hearing devices. For example, increased allergens can clog microphone ports in hearing aids, so be sure to clean hearing aids regularly and replace covers of mic ports when necessary.

Along with allergens, spring is accompanied by heat, humidity, rain and extreme temperature changes. Moisture is the enemy of hearing aids, as it can build up in the tubing, damage the microphone and receiver and cause static. In addition, warm weather means more ear wax build-up, which can clog the sound openings. To make sure hearing aids stay working properly when the weather changes, be sure to wear a hat or use an umbrella when going out in the rain. You’ll also want to dry your hair and ears thoroughly after showering prior to putting in your hearing aids. Lastly, in addition to regular cleaning, use a hearing aid dehumidifier overnight or anytime your hearing aids are exposed to excess moisture.

Be sure to see a hearing healthcare professional if your hearing problems persist after the barrage of wet weather, sudden barometric changes and allergy season ends, so you can enjoy the beautiful sounds of springtime for years to come.

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