Your ears are more than just convenient places on which to rest eyeglasses. It turns out they can reveal a lot about your health, according to your Bay Area hearing specialist.
Pay Attention to What Your Ears Are Saying
Walnut Creek audiology experts recommend paying close attention to your ears in order to gauge your overall health. Otherwise innocuous symptoms can be key to understanding deeper issues. Ten things to look out for include:
- Creased earlobes. Wrinkles are a common byproduct of aging, but they are usually confined to certain parts of your body (face, hands, etc.). When they appear on your earlobes, they can be a sign of an underlying health issue such as coronary heart disease. Elastic tissue surrounding the blood vessels in both the ear and heart can break down and lead to a diagonal crease in the middle of the earlobe called Frank’s sign. There is no need to panic as this is just one possible marker, but such a crease does bear watching, especially if you experience other signs and symptoms of heart disease such as chest pain and shortness of breath.
- Hearing loss. There is a well-established link between hearing loss and other health problems. Numerous studies have found an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia; Johns Hopkins researchers say those with moderate hearing loss are three times as likely to develop dementia compared to people with normal hearing. The best way to prevent complications from hearing loss is to treat it with hearing aids; these ease the burden on the brain as it strains to hear and help prevent withdrawal and social isolation.
- Single-sided deafness. Hearing loss that is confined to one ear usually results from trauma, infection or excess fluid in the inner ear. But it can also be caused by a tumor known as an acoustic neuroma. While typically benign, over time the tumor can grow large enough to press against the auditory nerve of the inner ear, resulting in one-sided hearing loss. Look for additional symptoms such as imbalance, tinnitus and facial drooping or weakness.
- Tinnitus. Usually described as a ringing in the ears, tinnitus is common, affecting 50 million Americans to some degree. It is considered a symptom rather than a disease, the result of an underlying condition. There are many possible causes including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, hormonal changes, Meniere’s disease and tumors. The degree to which you suffer from tinnitus varies widely; some people describe it as an occasional nuisance, while others are so bothered by the constant distraction, they experience a host of problems including stress, anxiety and insomnia.
- Itchy ears. Itchy ears may indicate the presence of a fungus or eczema in your ears. The latter is often accompanied by white flakes and a red ear canal, while a fungus can also have a white discharge. Scratching from eczema can make the ears prone to a fungal infection, so one often leads to the other. Any itchiness that persists for longer than a day or two should be checked out.
- Earache. Most earaches are the result of an ear infection, but if you’re an adult, you are far less likely to experience this common childhood ailment. An earache may also be associated with “referred pain” from a toothache, TMJ disorder, cellulitis from an infection, a tumor or sore throat. Persistent or recurring earaches, especially in adults, should be examined by a hearing specialist.
- Wet, sticky earwax. Earwax is a normal byproduct of ears and helps keep bacteria and other particles out of the ear canal, but a wet and sticky consistency can translate to a higher risk of breast cancer due to a mutation on the ABCC11 gene. If you have a family history or other personal risk factors, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for this.
- Red ears. Too much time in the sun and flushing from embarrassment can cause red ears, as can more complex issues such as hormonal change associated with menopause or pregnancy. Hot flashes are usually limited to the upper body and face and may be accompanied by tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Another possible cause is Red Ear Syndrome, a burning sensation in the ears that may trigger migraines and cluster headaches.
- Numbness. Occasional numbness by itself isn’t cause for concern, but if it’s accompanied by other symptoms such as limb weakness, facial drooping or difficulty speaking, it may indicate a stroke. Symptoms such as vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus can be signs of an inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease. When numbness and tingling are present in extremities besides your ears, you may be suffering from peripheral neuropathy associated with diabetes.
- Structural abnormalities and skin tags. Oddly-shaped ears and excess skin tags – small, fleshy growths – may be signs of kidney disease.
If you are experiencing any of these signs and concerned about possible health risks, make an appointment with your Walnut Creek audiology professional to rule out any complications.