But ageing, infection and disease can impact our hearing and have an enormous impact on our daily lives. Hearing loss affects one in six New Zealanders and can be a result of ear diseases which not only interfere with your hearing and balance they can also be extremely uncomfortable.

Our ears are incredibly sophisticated organs of the body. They pick up the sound waves in the air and deliver them to your brain where the sound waves are translated into separate and distinguishable sounds.

Thanks to our ears, we can hear incredibly quiet sounds, identify a specific sound even when there’s lots of background noise, and tell the direction a noise is coming from and whether it's near or far away. Our ears also help us with balance and they even self-clean, producing earwax to remove dirt and debris from our ears.

To be able to do all those intricate processes, our ears need to be healthy and in good working order. But every part of our ears is vulnerable to trauma, infection or disease which can cause anything from minor to severe damage, that is temporary or even permanent.

Hearing diseases

Not all diseases of the ear or trauma will affect your hearing, but in severe cases, it can result in sensorineural or conductive hearing loss. Your hearing health is particularly at risk if you leave your ear problems to go untreated. To help you look after your ears and hearing health, here are four common ear diseases and symptoms you should be aware of:

Ear infections

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

  • Inner ear infections (otitis media) are 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 surprisingly common ear condition affecting more than 207,000 people in New Zealand over the age of 14. Tinnitus is 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 two in 1,000 adults in New Zealand are affected by Ménière’s disease. It is more common in people aged between 40 and 60, but adults of any age can be affected. Ménière’s disease 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 the risk of numerous hearing conditions. Long or repeated exposure to very loud noises can also cause a ruptured eardrum and lead to noise-induced hearing loss which is a known cause of one-third of cases of hearing loss in New Zealand. Symptoms 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.