According to the American Lung Association, the average adult gets 2-4 colds per year. A cold is a minor infection caused by one of 200 possible cold viruses. Between 10-40% of colds are caused by rhinovirus, primarily in the nose and sinuses. But other forms of the cold virus include coronavirus, which primarily targets the throat and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which impacts the lungs. Around 30% of colds are caused by what doctors call “unknown bugs”. If you catch one of these bugs you may have a variety of cold symptoms.
While everyone knows about getting the “sniffles”, we don’t often talk about other types of cold symptoms because they are less frequent. One type of cold you don’t often “hear” about is the one that moves into one or more ears. While you may generally think of colds as harmless, here’s why this ear-related cold symptom should never be ignored.
How to Tell Whether a Cold Has Moved into Your Ears
Your sinuses are directly connected to your ears, so it’s normal to feel some stuffiness in your ears during a cold. This stuffiness is often relieved when you take a decongestant to relieve sinus symptoms.
But if you experience pain inside the ears, this is something you should never ignore, even during a cold. If the cold moves into the ear, the eardrum can become infected. When it does, inflammation occurs. Inflammation is an immune response that causes fluid to build up on the outside of the eardrum. So a person with an inflamed eardrum may also experience a slow leaking of fluid from the ear. Because it’s a slow leak, it’s most noticeable when you sleep on your side.
This affects how well you hear in the short-term, which is called conductive hearing loss. Unfortunately it can also cause the eardrum to burst, which leads to long-term hearing loss. In turn, more permanent damage occurs to the hearing nerves from the inflammation, which is called sensorineural hearing loss.
The Cost of Waiting
If a child or adult has ear pain, the ears should always be checked by a professional. Often a primary doctor or patient assumes that the ear symptoms will go away when the primary cold does. A patient may not even think to mention that they are feeling actual pain in the ear. But if you’re feeling pain, the infection has advanced to a point where it is doing damage to the ear. It’s paramount that the ear infection be treated promptly to avoid more damage.
Many people who experience ear pain during a cold, get over their cold only to find that the ear pain lingers. This is often when a person finally decides to visit a hearing specialist. But by this time, a lot of damage has already been done. This damage often results in permanent hearing loss, especially if you are prone to ear infections.
Each time you have an infection, eardrum perforations and scar tissue can occur, which over time affect hearing acuity. In a normal, healthy person the eardrum acts as a barrier between the middle ear and inner ear. If the eardrum becomes perforated even once, then the infection that was previously confined to the middle ear can now enter the inner ear, where it can harm the irreplaceable tiny nerve cells that you need to hear.
What to Do If You Waited to Treat an Ear Infection
Don’t beat yourself up. Most people just think ear pain with a cold is normal when it actually signals a much more serious cold infection. If you are experiencing continued hearing loss after a cold, It’s best to schedule an appointment with a hearing professional sooner rather than later. This professional can assess the situation to determine whether:
- Any infection remains, causing ongoing damage
- The eardrum burst
- There is scar tissue affecting how well you hear
- The infection got into your inner ear
The hearing professional will also assess whether the hearing loss is temporary (conductive). If this is the case, you may have a blockage in your ear that needs to be removed by a professional. If the hearing loss is permanent (sensorineural), they can discuss options that will help you hear better including new hearing technology.
Don’t wait if you have ear pain during a cold or have hearing loss after a cold. Schedule an appointment with a hearing professional if you have this cold symptom.