You and Your Health: Ears

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With Andrew Watson of Goodmeasure Pharmacy, Parkgate

Our ears are complex, amazing structures. Capable of picking up sounds from our environment and transmitting them to our brains to be interpreted, ears also affect our balance. We probably take them for granted until they go wrong but ear disorders can be annoying and disabling.

The ear has three portions known as outer, middle and inner.

Outer Ear

The outer ear, or the pinna, is the part that is showing and also protects the middle ear from damage. Sound passes into this and travels down the ear canal to the ear drum then into the middle ear. It is lined with small hairs to trap dirt and small insects, and it produces earwax for lubrication.

A feeling of poor fuzzy hearing occurs if too much wax is present. It is important not to try to poke this out as it will just be pushed further into the ear canal which is about an inch long and very narrow.

The recommended treatments for excess ear wax are olive oil ear drops, sodium bicarbonate ear drops or proprietary drops such as Cerumol. Your pharmacist will advise you on this. If you need to have your ears syringed, olive oil should be used for several days before attending your GP surgery.

When sound waves reach the eardrum it vibrates; this vibration passes into the middle ear where it is converted into pressure waves by three small bones known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup- these transmit the sound into the inner ear.

Middle Ear

The middle ear is filled with air and connected to the back of the nose and mouth by the flat Eustachian tube. When we yawn, swallow or chew it opens allowing fresh air to flow into the middle ear and any mucus present to move to the back of the mouth. However, sometimes after a cold the Eustachian tube becomes clogged with mucus and doesn’t open, causing some pain and affecting hearing.

A decongestant nasal spray or tablets, an antihistamine, steroid nasal spray or a steam inhalation with some menthol and eucalyptus added usually sorts this out. Again ask your pharmacist for advice.

If an infection occurs and bacteria gets into the middle ear, a raised temperature, discharge of pus, pain and swelling can be present and an antibiotic may be needed. Middle ear infections are more common in children than adults as their Eustachian tubes are shorter and narrower. As well as an antibiotic a painkiller such as liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen is advisable.

Inner Ear

The inner and middle ear are separated by the oval window which contains the spiral shaped cochlea and the semicircular canals which are full of fluid and concerned with balance. The cochlea converts the middle ear pressure waves into electrical impulses; these are sent to the brain which interprets the different sounds enabling us to make sense of them.

These semicircular canals, if not functioning normally, can cause upsets with balance resulting in dizziness, nausea and hearing loss. This may be due to labyrinthitis or inflammation in the inner ear which can be distressing and it is best to lie down when affected. If it is due to an infection antibiotics may help.

Otherwise your GP may give you a mild tranquilliser to minimise the signals passing to your brain, or perhaps an antiemetic to stop you feeling sick. Usually these attacks pass but if they persist there is aself help website Labyrinthitis.org.uk.

It is important to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid and avoid driving. Bright lights, loud persistent sounds, alcohol, chocolate and coffee may trigger an attack.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is another unpleasant disorder of the ears. Sufferers hear disturbing noises that are not audible to others, such as buzzing, ringing or whistling sounds. This can be due to damage to the cochlea in the inner ear which interferes with the messages to the brain. Treatment is difficult and any problem with the ears such as earwax, hearing loss or infection should be treated first.

Otherwise using other sounds such as music, special white noise radios, or apps which make soothing noises can help mask tinnitus.

So appreciate and look after your ears by wearing earplugs or headphones when exposed to loud sounds or machinery, by not poking them with cotton buds and by eating a good diet with plenty of potassium rich fruit and vegetables such as bananas, dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli.

 

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