Hearing Loss & Sinuses: The Sinus-Ear Connection
A sinus infection is certainly no fun. You may have a sore throat and fever, stuffed-up nasal passages, facial tenderness, and an unbearable pain behind your eyes, cheeks and forehead. These are all symptoms commonly associated with sinus infections (sinusitis). But there’s another, slightly-less-common complaint associated with sinus infections: You may also be having trouble hearing.
But how, exactly, could a sinus infection lead to hearing loss?
First, it’s helpful to explain what a sinus infection is. Simply put, a sinus infection is a swelling, or inflammation, of the para-nasal sinuses known as the sinus cavity. These are the hollow spaces located in the bones, near the nose and between the eyes. When the sinuses become inflamed, the glands in the sinus start secreting more mucus than normal, blocking the nasal passageways and preventing the mucus from draining out of the sinus cavities like it should. A sinus infection may be brought on by an allergic reaction or a bacterial, viral or fungal infection. In some cases, tooth extraction or certain dental procedures may also lead to sinusitis.
Because the sinuses are closely located beside the ear canal, when the sinuses are clogged and congested, it can also affect the ears. This blockage in the sinuses can cause the Eustachian tube (the channel which connects the middle ear to the throat and regulates ear pressure) to become swollen and blocked, sucking fluid into the ear space. This leads to pressure on the eardrum, which can result in pain and hearing loss. At the very least, sounds may seem muffled, as if coming through a long tunnel or being heard underwater. Other times, the hearing loss may be much more severe.
The good news is that in most cases this type of hearing loss is temporary: Once the sinus infection is cleared up and the fluids drain away from the nasal passages and the Eustachian tube, typically hearing is restored. However, if the sinus infection is chronic (meaning it’s persistent and lasts three months or longer) and left untreated, that can lead to other complications such as an ear infection.
If the ear infection is not cured, that can damage the small bones present in the middle ear, which can result in a number of painful or uncomfortable symptoms including tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), vertigo (a sense of loss of balance), and bleeding or rupturing of the eardrum. The worst-case scenario would be permanent and complete hearing loss.
To protect your hearing, it is critical that you seek immediate medical treatment for any type of sudden hearing loss. If the cause of your hearing problems is sinusitis, initial treatment may include medication such as antibiotics along with anti-histamines and analgesics. Steam inhalation may be recommended to relieve nasal congestion. If treated early, the risk of permanent damage to the ear can be effectively reduced. If your sinus problems are chronic or more severe, a surgical treatment may be recommended.
Sinus-related hearing loss can be completely avoided by treating the sinus infection before it spreads to the ears. Sinusitis is diagnosed by physical examination of the symptoms and x-ray of the para-nasal cavities. In some cases, a CT scan may be recommended to evaluate the extent of the infection. Your physician may also test the fluid in the ears to detect the type of infection and provide medication accordingly.
If the pressure and stuffiness in your sinuses persist and your hearing seems to be declining, it’s important that you consult with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or otolaryngologist. ENT physicians have the education, training and experience necessary to properly evaluate and treat hearing loss, sinus and ear infections, and even vertigo and balance disorders that often develop as a result of pressure in the Eustachian tube. Your doctor may prescribe an oral steroid medication but will also be able to perform minimally invasive procedures such as a labyrinthotomy to quickly deliver medication where it’s needed.
If you live in the Atlanta area and are experiencing sudden hearing loss, contact the Sinus Institute of Atlanta. Dr. Pradeep Sinha and his staff treat all diseases of the ears, nose and throat. They’re also experts when it comes to office surgery procedures that are minimally invasive, giving you a better chance of a quick and complete recovery. Please call 404-257-7412 today to schedule your appointment, or fill out our online contact form to request a consultation.