Grandfather and granddaughter playing on the grass. Grandfather wearing Lexie Lumen, quality hearing aid.

Can Allergies Affect My Hearing?

December 18, 2020

Seasonal allergies make certain times of the year difficult for many people. Those prone to allergies experience unpleasant symptoms such as a runny nose, watery eyes, itching, coughing, sneezing, and a post-nasal drip. If you are prone to allergies and are also struggling with your hearing at this time, you may be wondering: ‘Can allergies affect my hearing?’. This article will help to answer your questions.

What are allergies?

When your immune system encounters a foreign substance that could cause your body harm, it responds in an exaggerated way by releasing antibodies and chemicals called histamines into the bloodstream. The release of histamine produces an allergic response such as sneezing, congestion, and increases mucus production. This is often referred to as “hay fever”.

What triggers an allergy?

An allergy means you are hypersensitive to a substance that is harmless to most people. The most common triggers for allergies are pollen, dust mites, mold, animal dander, smoke, pollution, chemicals, and certain food types. Some individuals may be allergic to their laundry detergent, fragrance, earrings, or pets. Allergies are more common in the spring and summer but can occur all year round.

Side effects of allergies

Allergies don’t only affect the eyes and nose. An allergic response can affect the skin with swelling and an itchy rash, too. Since the ear has a considerable amount of skin, it may also be affected.  Allergies can cause itchiness, swelling, pressure, fullness, dizziness, or ringing in the ears. Allergies can also lead to ear infections, as fluid build-up in the middle ear can be a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria. People with allergies are more likely to experience ear infections than those without.

Can allergies affect my hearing?

Yes, allergies can impact your hearing, as your ear has three major sections, all of which can be affected by allergies.

Outer ear:

Allergic skin reactions can cause swelling and inflammation of both the outer ear and ear canal. This hinders sound waves from entering the ear, creating a muffled sound sensation and a feeling that the ear is blocked. The body also produces more ear-wax in response to an allergy, creating a build-up that blocks sound.

Middle ear:

The middle ear contains an organ known as the Eustachian tube which regulates pressure and drains excess fluid from the middle ear. Allergies can cause excess mucus build-up which prevents the Eustachian tube from performing its function. Increased fluid and pressure against the eardrum create a feeling of fullness and discomfort. The middle ear cannot effectively amplify and transfer sound from the outer ear to the inner ear, and you may experience some hearing difficulty. The increased fluid may also trigger balance problems such as vertigo, leaving you feeling dizzy and light-headed. In addition, allergic reactions affecting the middle ear may trigger tinnitus (the ringing in the ears) or worsen existing tinnitus symptoms.

Inner ear:

While allergies do not typically affect the inner ear directly, common inner ear disorders such as Meniere’s Disease can worsen when allergies occur, leading to a flare-up in symptoms.

Is allergy-related hearing loss temporary or permanent?

Most of the time, allergy symptoms are temporary. This includes any decrease in hearing you may experience. Swelling and build-up of fluid interfere with the pathway of sound through the outer and middle ear, resulting in a conductive hearing loss (CHL). Conductive hearing loss is curable, but it causes temporary hearing difficulties. Normal hearing usually returns after your symptoms subside.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between temporary conductive hearing loss and a permanent condition. In most cases, permanent hearing loss is caused by damage to the cochlea in the inner ear which results in a sensorineural hearing loss. If you already have sensorineural hearing loss, allergy symptoms may make your hearing difficulties worse and cause you to experience mixed hearing loss during allergy season. Mixed hearing loss means that a temporary conductive hearing loss is present together with a permanent sensorineural hearing loss.

Allergies and Hearing Aids

Since hearing difficulties caused by allergies alone are typically mild and clear up quite quickly, a hearing aid is usually not needed. However, some people who visit a hearing healthcare professional for allergy-related symptoms may discover that they have an underlying permanent hearing loss and may benefit from hearing aids.

If you are an allergy-prone hearing aid wearer, swelling, itching, or fluid in the ears can make it painful and difficult to use your hearing aids. If possible, you should use your hearing aids sparingly during allergy season. Try not to turn up the volume if your hearing seems worse, as the high volume could damage your hearing further once the fluid clears and your hearing improves. It is important to clean your hearing aids often so that they do not become damaged by excess wax build-up. It is wise to have a hearing test annually once allergy season is over, to check the overall quality of your hearing and make sure that any congestion has cleared.

Treatment for allergy symptoms

A first step in treating allergies is to find out what allergens trigger the symptoms and then try to avoid them. For example, if a person is allergic to dust mites, living spaces should be kept clean, well ventilated, and free of carpeting as far as possible. If a person is allergic to pollen, they may have to limit the time they spend outdoors when the pollen count is especially high. An allergist or immunologist can do tests to help a person find their allergy triggers.

If a person experiences ear pain as a result of an allergy, treating the allergy can help provide relief from the pain. People with seasonal allergies, such as hay fever, may need to start taking allergy medications before coming into contact with the allergens. Allergy medication such as antihistamine sprays or tablets helps to prevent the release of the chemicals that cause allergic reactions. While certain medications offering relief are available over the counter at your pharmacy, a visit to your doctor to obtain a prescription for suitable medication is advisable.

There are a few home remedies for mild ear discomfort. Resting in an upright position as opposed to lying down can reduce pressure in the middle ear. To ease pressure and pain, try chewing gum or place a cold pack on your outer ear for 20 minutes. Holding a warm, wet washcloth against the affected ear as a compress can also help to ease discomfort. You should never try to scratch an itchy ear by putting anything inside your ear canal such as a hairpin or earbud, which could damage the sensitive structures of the ear.

When and where to seek professional help

If allergy and/or ear symptoms are persistent or frequently recur, your healthcare professional might recommend immunotherapy as a long-term treatment option.  Allergy injections, tablets, or oral drops contain a very small amount of the allergen to which the person is allergic. It will be just enough to trigger the immune system, but not enough to cause a severe allergic reaction. In this way, the body builds resistance and becomes desensitized to the allergen, so that the severity of symptoms is reduced over time.

If your hearing loss persists when your other allergy symptoms have cleared, you should consult your healthcare or hearing healthcare professional to make sure your condition does not need long-term treatment. If you experience sudden hearing loss, you should seek professional help straight away, as it may be the first sign of another medical problem.

If you experience symptoms of ear pain, redness, swelling, fever, dizziness, a sore throat, and/ or drainage from the ear, you may have developed an ear infection from an allergy. A doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics to treat it. Antihistamines, decongestants, and pain relief medication may also help relieve symptoms. Your doctor may also refer you to a hearing healthcare professional for a hearing test.

If your tinnitus worsens, it is also advisable to speak to your doctor or audiologist. Tinnitus can interfere with your ability to hear, your mood, your sleep, and your quality of life. Some people who experience mild irritation or annoyance due to tinnitus find that the ringing or high-pitched sound worsens with allergies.

Image of post writer Jenny Birkenstock.

Written by Jenny Birkenstock

B. Speech Therapy and Audiology; B.Sc.Hons (Psych.); M.Diac (Play Therapy)

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