It happens out of nowhere. Sitting at your desk in the office, you suddenly lose hearing in one ear for a few seconds before everything returns to normal. Or maybe you hear a ringing in your ear that comes on and off for a few days, then goes away.
When most people think of ear problems, they think of ear infections, hearing loss, and deafness. However, despite being one of the smallest structures in your body, ears are incredibly complex and subject to many complications.
So, is this ringing in your ears normal or a sign of something more serious? Here are five ear problems you may not know about and what to do if you suspect you have an ear condition.
Read more: 7 unexpected things that can damage your hearing
You temporarily lose hearing in one or both ears
What is: Acute noise-induced hearing loss or obstructive hearing loss.
If you’ve ever been to a loud concert, you may have experienced noise-induced hearing loss before. Acute noise-induced hearing loss occurs when you temporarily lose your hearing in response to exposure to loud noise. It can make ambient sounds seem muffled or make conversations sound muffled. Although temporary in itself, repeated exposure to acute noise-induced hearing loss can lead to long-term permanent hearing loss.
Obstructive or conductive hearing loss occurs when something physically blocks sound from reaching your hearing structures. This can happen when there is too much earwax in your ears, if you have a foreign object stuck in your ear, or if you have any kind of injury to your inner, middle, or outer ear. If you have this type of hearing loss, you may also feel pain or a feeling of fullness in your ear.
You hear a ringing in your ears that comes and goes
What is: Noise in the ears.
Tinnitus refers to the sensation of noise or ringing in your ears. Perception is the key word because you are not actually hearing a real sound when you experience tinnitus. Often a symptom of other ear conditions, tinnitus is not a stand-alone condition. This could mean age-related hearing loss, an ear injury or infection, a circulatory disorder, or something else.
You may hear phantom noises other than ringing, including buzzing, clicking, roaring, humming, or hissing. The volume level of the phantom noises may vary or remain constant, and the noises may appear and disappear completely.
You are very annoyed to hear your colleague eating a snack
What is: Misophonia.
This disorder involves an emotional response to sounds that really don’t bother most people, such as chewing, breathing, and tapping. Everyone is sometimes annoyed by repetitive sounds, but people with misophonia experience an upsetting emotional response that often includes anger and resentment. They may think that others are deliberately making noises to upset them.
People with misophonia may act out in response to a noise someone else makes and later realize that their reaction was extreme or inappropriate. If you often experience strong feelings—remember, more than mild irritation—in response to various sounds, you may want to talk to a doctor.
You hear ringing in your ears and feel dizzy
What is: Meniere’s disease.
This inner ear disease is characterized by tinnitus and bouts of vertigo (dizziness) and can contribute to progressive hearing loss. Ménière’s disease is considered a chronic disease and doctors still do not know the exact cause. However, fluid accumulation and fluid drainage problems appear to be a contributing factor. In most cases, Ménière’s disease affects only one ear and can cause a sensation of fullness in the affected ear, a symptom called hearing fullness.
You can hear your own pulse and it is continuous
What is: Rhythmic tinnitus.
Also called pulsatile tinnitus, this is a rare form of regular tinnitus. Rhythmic tinnitus, unlike regular tinnitus, occurs in response to a physical sound – that of blood circulating through the arteries. Doctors sometimes call this condition “objective tinnitus” because they can hear the sound, while regular tinnitus is subjective because only the patient can hear it.
If you have rhythmic tinnitus, you may notice that the pitch of the sound correlates with your heart rate. You may also feel like you can never escape the sound, especially when you are lying down or pressing your ear against something.
What should I do if I think I have an ear disease?
If you suspect something is wrong with your ears or hearing, skip the Google-fest and see a doctor as soon as possible. Hearing disorders, especially hearing loss, can appear slowly without showing symptoms until the disease progresses to a severe condition.
In most cases, you will need to see an otolaryngologist or audiologist for ear and hearing disorders. If you go to your primary care doctor, they will likely refer you to one of these ear specialists. If you have an ear condition that includes or has caused sensorineural hearing loss, ask your doctor about hearing aids, assistive listening devices, or cochlear implants.