They not only provide us with one of the most remarkable senses, our hearing, they also help us with our balance and even clean themselves by producing earwax.

Your ears take the sound waves in the air around you and deliver them to your brain where they are then translated into separate sounds. Thanks to your ears, you can pick up even the quietest of sounds, isolate a specific sound in a noisy room and be able to determine the direction a noise is coming from and whether it's near or far away.

But your ears can only do this for you if they are healthy and in good working order. When your ears are blocked, infected or carrying disease it will affect your ability to hear well. Hearing loss affects approximately one in seven Australians and can have a huge impact on every aspect of a person’s life.

Hearing loss can occur as a result of an ear disease which affects hearing and balance, and can also be very uncomfortable or painful. All parts of your ear can be affected by disease or trauma which can cause damage varying from minor to severe, and can lead to temporary or even permanent problems.

Hearing diseases

While not all types of diseases of the ear cause hearing loss, certain types of ear diseases and infections can lead to sensorineural or conductive hearing loss. This is why you should seek medical advice and treatment as soon as you notice a change in your hearing or experience pain, discomfort or discharge in your ears. Here are four common ear diseases and symptoms to be aware of:

  • Ear infections
  • Tinnitus (ringing in ears)
  • Ménière’s disease
  • Ruptured eardrum

Ear infections

Inner and outer ear infections are the most common form of ear pain.

  • Inner ear infections (otitis media) is often caused by cold and flu viruses. The infection usually clears up after a few days and can be treated with painkillers. Antibiotics may be prescribed if it doesn’t clear up after three days or you have discharge.
  • Outer ear infection (otitis externa) can be caused by bacterial, fungal, or yeast infections or irritation from wearing a hearing aid or earplugs. Also common in people with skin problems or keen swimmers and treated with ear drops or antibiotic medication.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is a relatively common ear condition with 10%-15% of people in Australia affected by it. Tinnitus refers to when you hear sounds in your ears when there is no external source. It can occur as a ringing, roaring, buzzing, or whistling sound which can be low, medium, or high-pitched. It’s often linked to age-related hearing loss or following exposure to loud noise. It can be temporary, but for some people, it occurs frequently or they have it all the time.

Ménière’s disease

Around 40,000 Australians are estimated to be affected by Ménière’s disease, which is a long-term, progressive inner ear disease that affects balance and the hearing parts of your inner ear. Ménière’s disease can cause you to feel dizzy and unsteady, experience a spinning sensation, feel sick, hear ringing or buzzing sounds. You may experience a sudden drop in your hearing on one side, known as unilateral hearing loss. These symptoms can happen at the same time and last for minutes, hours, or in severe cases, you can experience permanent hearing loss.

Ruptured eardrum

Sudden changes in air pressure, foreign objects in the ear, or infection can tear the delicate eardrum causing discomfort, and possibly one or more hearing conditions. Long or repeated exposure to very loud noises can also cause a ruptured eardrum and lead to noise-induced hearing loss which affects up to one in six adults in Australia, with about 10% resulting from occupational noise. Symptoms of a ruptured eardrum can include:

  • Earache or pain in the ear
  • Sudden hearing loss causing your hearing to be muffled or you struggle to hear anything
  • Itching in your ear
  • Ear discharge
  • Tinnitus

If you are concerned about your hearing or you are experiencing pain or discomfort in your ears, you should schedule a consultation with your hearing care professional or doctor as soon as possible.