We’ve all got ears (some are more pronounced than others). If you think they’re only good for collecting sounds, you might be surprised to learn that your ears can also provide important clues about your overall health. Your Bellevue audiologist will explain how.
Ears, Lookin’ At You
Inside and out, your ears reveal a lot about your physical health. Doctors in Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond and throughout the Puget Sound know to study the ears of their patients closely for clues to possible underlying medical conditions.
Here are some of the things they check for.
Earlobes that have a diagonal crease through the middle are often a sign of coronary heart disease. In fact, there’s a name for this: Frank’s sign. It occurs when tissue surrounding the blood vessels deteriorates around the ears and heart. Not all creases are indicative of cardiovascular disease, but they are worth investigating—especially if you have been having chest pain or shortness of breath.
Obviously, a loss of hearing indicates a problem with the ears, but it is also associated with a variety of physical, social and psychological conditions—more so in those who aren’t treating their impairment. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that people with moderate hearing loss are three times more likely to suffer from dementia compared to those whose hearing is normal.
Hearing loss that occurs in only one ear (often called SSHL) can occur due to trauma, infection, fluid buildup or acoustic neuroma—a benign tumor that grows on the vestibular nerve. Even though it’s noncancerous, the tumor may grow large enough to press up against the auditory nerve, causing hearing loss in one ear. It can eventually become life-threatening unless removed surgically.
Usually described as a ringing in the ears (though patients report a wide range of sounds including roaring, whooshing, hissing, buzzing and clicking), tinnitus is a symptom rather than a disease, the result of another medical condition that you may or may not be aware of. Possible causes include high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, circulatory disorders, hormonal changes, Meniere’s disease and tumors. Side effects of tinnitus such as stress, anxiety and insomnia are common.
Ears that itch frequently might be a sign of eczema, especially when the ear canals are red; or fungus, which might be accompanied by a white-colored discharge. Avoid scratching your ears to reduce the chances of infection. If itchiness lasts longer than a few days, have a doctor check things out.
Earaches are common in children but fairly unusual for adults. They might be a type of “referred pain” associated with a toothache, TMJ disorder, cellulitis from an infection, sore throat or tumor. Persistent earaches should be evaluated by a hearing professional.
Wet, sticky earwax
Earwax is a naturally-occurring substance that keeps bacteria and other particles out of the ear canals. If it’s excessively wet and sticky, it could be a sign of a gene mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer. If your earwax has an unusual consistency, schedule a visit with an audiologist—especially if you have a family history of breast cancer.
Sometimes, too much sun or an embarrassing situation can cause your ears to redden. If the discoloration is persistent, you might be suffering from hormonal changes related to menopause. You might also have a condition called Red Ear Syndrome; this is often accompanied by a burning sensation in the ears, migraines and/or cluster headaches
Numbness in the ears could be a sign you’ve suffered a stroke, especially if you are also experiencing droopiness in the face, limb weakness and having trouble speaking. If the numbness is accompanied by vertigo, hearing loss or tinnitus, you may have an inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease; if you have a tingling sensation that extends to other extremities, you might be suffering from peripheral neuropathy, a complication of diabetes.
Skin tags and other abnormalities
Oddly-shaped ears that have a lot of small, fleshy growths called skin tags are a possible indicator of kidney disease.
While these symptoms are often harmless, they at least warrant further examination by an audiologist or other medical professional in Bellevue. If you have noticed any of the above signs, schedule an appointment at your earliest convenience.