Hearing Aids

Although hearing aids can dramatically improve the quality of life by restoring the ability to participate in conversations, detect important information, and enjoy the music, they do have some drawbacks.

The most common adverse events are caused by poorly fitted hearing aids that can lead to skin irritation and soreness at the site of insertion.

Other common side effects include noise feedback, ringing in the ears, and headaches, all of which are caused by the hearing aid being incorrectly adjusted. Many users wonder if they may have other more unexpected side effects.

The connection between the ears and the nasal passages

Although the external ear where hearing aids are usually placed is not directly linked to the nasal passages due to the barrier provided by the eardrum, the Eustachian tube is located directly behind the eardrum and provides an open passage that connects the inner ear with the throat.

The Eustachian tube connects with the throat very near to where the nasal passages that drain the sinuses also connect to the throat.

The Eustachian tube has two primary functions: it equalizes air pressure between the middle ear and the external environment, and it drains excess liquid from the middle ear.

If there a significant difference in air pressure between the environment and the middle ear, most individuals experience discomfort and instinctively yawn to open the Eustachian tubes as fully as possible to equalize the pressure.

Individuals who suffer from allergies and sinus problems know full-well that issues with the nasal passages can affect hearing; in fact, in some cases, a severe allergy or sinus infection can lead to complete temporary hearing loss.

Most of these issues are caused by inflammation of the Eustachian tube. Previously, surgical placement of tubes in the Eustachian tube was necessary to treat patients with chronic or severe acute Eustachian tube dysfunction, but the FDA recently approved a new system that uses a tiny balloon to open the Eustachian tubes to restore normal function.

Does the connection work the other way?

Many hearing aid users wonder if, since nasal and sinus problems can lead to hearing problems, can hearing aids lead to nasal and sinus problems? According to Karen McQuaide, an audiologist from New Jersey, the answer is generally no.

The eardrum provides an intact barrier between the external ear, where the hearing aid is placed, and the Eustachian tube that connects to the nasal passages.

It is, of course, possible for the eardrum to rupture. Common causes of eardrum rupture include sudden changes of air pressure, exposure to extremely loud noises, and insertion of a foreign object such as a cotton swab into the ear.

Although usually, a ruptured eardrum will heal by itself within a few weeks, during this period the middle ear is exposed to the external environment and the risk of developing a middle ear infection is increased slightly.

The use of a hearing aid with a temporarily or permanently ruptured eardrum is common. Hearing aid use does not seem to cause any serious problems or increase the risk of middle ear infections in these scenarios; however, it is always best to consult your ENT about your specific situation.

External ear infections

Although as mentioned above hearing aid use does not seem to affect the sinuses or nasal passages, they can affect the external ear.

Depending on what type they are, they can block airflow into the external ear, causing it to become moist and turn into a breeding ground for bacteria.

Also, some hearing aids can irritate the skin or block the normal flow of wax and skin cell debris from the external ear, which can also increase the risk of developing an external ear infection.

Geoffrey Cooling, hearing aid expert, recommends the following to prevent external ear infections while using a hearing aid:

  • Clean your hearing aids every time you take them out
  • Give your ears time to air out every day
  • Try to avoid getting your ears wet

Generally, an external ear infection will resolve on its own within a few days.

It is essential to resist the urge to “clean out” your ears whether or not you have an external ear infection.

Foreign bodies should never be inserted into your ears, particularly cotton swabs. The external ear flap can be gently washed with soap and water, but there is no need to wash the actual ear canal and efforts to clean it can cause damage to the skin, trigger an ear infection, and even rupture the eardrum.

Ear wax usually removes itself, and if it does build-up, consider using a special ear wax removal liquid available over the counter or consult your ENT for professional removal of the wax; this is not a DIY project, especially if you wear hearing aids and already have compromised hearing.

In summary

While sinus and nasal passage issues like allergies, colds, and infections can affect your hearing, hearing aids cannot directly affect your sinuses or nasal passages.

Some hearing aid users have speculated this myth may be caused by the fact that once someone starts using hearing aids, they may start socializing more, namely going out and interacting with other people since they can now actually participate in conversations.

Ergo, they are exposed to more cold viruses and more allergens, which can then lead to sinus and nasal passage problems. Clearly, the vast majority of people would far prefer to have a happy social life made possible by their hearing aids.