As the weather turns colder, many people start to think more about how to stay healthy and protect themselves from illness. Looking after your hearing is necessary all year round but is particularly important in the winter months, when extreme weather can interfere with your usual level of hearing.
Most of us are susceptible to coming down with the common cold during the winter. Colds are usually more irritating than debilitating, but they can cause temporary hearing problems. People may find that sounds appear muffled, and may notice a clicking sound in their ear or even tinnitus. Although these symptoms can be worrying, for the most part they clear up along with the cold and have completely disappeared in a couple of weeks.
For the majority of people colds pass quickly, but occasionally the mucus in the middle ear builds up and becomes infected, causing a middle ear infection. These are most common in children (due to their smaller Eustachian tube which allows fresh air into the ear) but it can occur in adults as well. Otitis media can cause fever, earache and some hearing loss. It mostly clears up on its own, with symptoms medicated with regular pain relief, and only rarely are antibiotics needed. Complications can develop however, such as glue ear or mastoiditis, which should be treated by a doctor.
The cold weather can also cause abnormal bone growths in the ear canal, known as exotosis. This is most commonly found in people who do winter sports such as skiing or surfing, as it is the body’s way of protecting ears from cold wind and water. The growths block the ear, which causes a wax buildup and makes it difficult for the ear to drain water. People with exotosis often have regular ear infections and hearing loss, which in some cases may be permanent. Surgery is currently the only option to remove these bony growths once they have started to develop. The best way to prevent exotois is to prevent the ear as far as possible from contact with cold water, or to invest in custom ear moulds. Prevention is the best way to ensure that you can keep doing your favourite sports all throughout the winter without worrying about the effect on your ears and hearing.
If you wear hearing aids it may be worth paying them special attention to them in the colder months. The condensation that occurs after dramatic temperature changes can damage hearing aids, interfering with the microphone and receiver as well as blocking the earmould tubing. Signs of weather damage could be the aid cutting out during loud noises, sound fading, hearing static and distortion. It is difficult to avoid moisture in the coldest months, but you can purchase a hearing aid drying kit or a dehumidifier. Removing the batteries and storing your aids in this device overnight may help to keep it dry. Additionally, make sure that you cover your ears in the rain and snow and immediately remove the battery if you think your aid may have been exposed to water.
With a little awareness and preparation you can protect your hearing this winter. Remember to contact your doctor or audiologist if you have any concerns and most importantly – stay warm!