Louis Roller takes a look at common ear problems and hearing loss

There are many different types of ear problems. For example, ear pain may be caused by infections of the tonsils, jaw or sinuses.

Chronic infection, glue ear and continuous exposure to loud noise can cause hearing loss that can affect learning and disrupt lifestyle, and exposure to loud noise can also damage hearing.

As well as infections, dermatitis can occur in the ears as a result of reactions to topical medicines, wearing jewellery, cosmetics or methacrylate ear plugs.

Some common ear problems include:

  • Otitis media: inflammation of the middle ear which causes a build-up of fluid, with or without an infection. If there is an infection, it is often viral. Many children will have several bouts of otitis media before they are seven years old. Symptoms include crying, ear pulling, mild fever and irritability.
  • Glue ear: a type of chronic otitis media. A long-term build-up of thick or sticky fluid in the middle ear behind the eardrum causes hearing loss. This can make socialising and learning difficult, especially if hearing loss is not recognised in early childhood.
  • Ear wax: protects the ear and is normal. However, a build-up of wax may be a problem in some adults, and may require wax-softening ear drops. Sometimes the ears may also need to be syringed clean. Impacted ear wax rarely causes an ear discharge or pain, but it may cause hearing impairment.
  • Swimmer’s ear: develops when humidity, heat and moisture cause the skin layer inside the ear to swell. The addition of further water through swimming, makes the skin lining the ear canal even softer and liable to infection. Attempts to remove the water with cotton buds or other objects may make the condition worse, causing pain and itching.

For all the above, there are a variety of products that pharmacists can help prevent ear problems.

The following tips may help prevent ear problems.

  • One should not use cotton buds or other devices for cleaning ears. Repeated attempts to remove earwax with a cotton bud or similar object may result in the wax becoming more deeply impacted.
  • People with swimmer’s ear should use earplugs to help prevent water entering the  ears.
  • If working in a noisy environment, including a home environment, ear protectors should be used.
  • The nose should be blown correctly; it should not be squeezed when blowing and sniffing should be avoided.
  • Any hearing loss should be checked. Hearing impairment in a child is sometimes suspected if the child is inattentive at school, does not respond to instructions, seems to be disobedient or wants the television on loud. If there is suspicion of a hearing impairment in a child, they should be referred. It is important that a doctor examines their ears, preferably using tympanometry to investigate ear pressure.

Medical advice should be sought when:

  • there is ear pain and/or dizziness;
  • there is pus or blood discharging from one or both ears;
  • there is earache and a general feeling of being unwell, with a fever and malaise;
  • the patient had any neck or head trauma before the ear pain started;
  • the patient has hearing that is acutely impaired or gradually deteriorating;
  • there is a foreign object in the ear or suspected one
  • the patient has used a medicine for the ear which has not improved or has become itchy, as this may indicate allergic dermatitis as a result of the medication.


Hearing loss

Australians are at greater risk of hearing loss than ever before through their lifestyle choices. Due to the noisy nature of modern living coupled with the lifestyle choices young people are making that involves listening to loud music, more Australians have a greater risk of acquiring a hearing loss earlier in life.

Hearing loss is a significant disability in Australia. Besides musculoskeletal disease, hearing loss is the second most common health condition experienced by Australians. It is more common than asthma, heart disease, cancer and diabetes

About one in six Australians has some kind of hearing loss. It is thought that about 37% of the hearing loss experienced by individuals is caused by preventable and repeated exposure to loud noise that is known as noise-induced hearing loss.

In 2015, an estimated four-plus million Australians were believed to have hearing loss – that’s roughly 17% of the total population. In general, the amount of people with a permanent hearing loss increases significantly with age with males experiencing relatively higher levels of hearing loss.

By 2050, one in four Australians are expected to have some kind of hearing loss. This increase is largely due to an aging population but increasing exposure to dangerous leisure noise is another by younger Australians is a contributing factor.

Noisy work environments are regulated so loud noise is kept to a minimum and hearing protection is readily available to employees where needed. However outside regulated workplaces, there are many sound sources that have the potential to damage your hearing.

Continuous exposure to harmful noise can also lead to noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. As a general rule, the higher the volume, the greater the chance it is damaging hearing, especially if exposure occurs over a long period of time.


Associate Professor Louis Roller, from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Monash University, was the 2014 recipient of the PSA Lifetime Achievement Award.