Blocked ears and hearing loss? It could be serous otitis!

Did you recently have a cold or allergies, and ever since then, you feel as though you don’t hear as well anymore in your ear? You may have serous otitis media (middle ear inflammation with secretions).

Serous otitis is caused by an accumulation of fluids behind the eardrum, in the middle ear. Unlike an acute middle ear infection, it causes no pain. Instead, you may feel as though your ear is full or blocked, and that you are not hearing as well as you should.

The fluid that accumulates in the ear may be thin or thick. It is normally discharged on its own through the auditory tube, but the tube can sometimes get blocked due to inflammation (for example because of a cold or allergies). Children are more likely to get serous otitis, but adults can also be affected.

There is no drug treatment to relieve serous otitis. Antibiotics are useless, since there is no bacterial infection. If allergies are the cause, treating them with a cortisone nasal spray or antihistamines may provide slight relief. A thorough nasal cleansing with a saline solution can reduce the risk of otitis if it is done as soon as the first symptoms of a cold appear, but does not have much impact if the otitis has already developed.

In most cases, your best option is to simply wait for the ear to unblock on its own… but this can take several weeks or even months. It is sometimes recommended to get the ear drained by surgically inserting an ear tube (myringotomy), especially when the hearing loss could have a detrimental impact, such as on a child’s ability to learn. A myringotomy may also be recommended if an airplane flight is planned, in order to prevent an eardrum rupture upon takeoff or landing.

If a loss of hearing comes on suddenly or is accompanied by other symptoms (e.g. pain, fever, dizziness, loss of balance), see a physician as soon as possible, as it could be a more serious problem.

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