Dear Dr Nina: Can a sinus infection cause long-term hearing loss?
Q I had a bad sinus infection a few months ago and was treated with antibiotics. Since then, I don't feel like I have ever gone back to normal. I have a continous full feeling in my head and my hearing has been affected. I find it hard to hear from one ear in particular. I haven't been back to the doctor yet because I have been waiting for things to go back to normal. I have had a few sessions of acupuncture which helped clear the congested feeling a bit, but not the hearing issue. Can a sinus infection damage your hearing?
Dr Nina replies: Reduced hearing after a sinus infection is rarely caused by ongoing infection or permanent scarring and ear damage. It is more commonly caused by ongoing nasal congestion due to rhinitis or hay fever. Congestion of the eustachian tube - which runs from the back of the nose to the middle ear is often the culprit.
In many cases treating the underlying congestion can improve hearing. You can buy many treatments over the counter, but always talk to your pharmacist. Older antihistamines can be very sedating and so the newer, less sedating ones are preferred.
Nasal rinsing can be a helpful addition to treat ongoing irritation and congestion. This is not for everyone. If you have an obstruction in your nasal cavity or if you experience nose bleeds, pain or headaches using the solution, talk to your doctor before any rinse. Rinsing involves flushing a solution of salt, bicarbonate soda and sterile water into the nasal passages. This rinsing can flush out debris, allergens and irritants easing congestion and discomfort. It can also help thin out thick problematic mucus.
It is essential that the water is sterile. Use either cool (lukewarm) boiled water or gently warmed distilled or sterile water. Tap water is not safe as it can contain bacteria which may then flourish in the nasal cavity.
The technique performing the rinse is also important. Lean your head sideways over a sink. Gently flush about 100mls of the prepared solution into the top nostril allowing it to flow out the bottom one. Remember to breathe through your mouth at all times. Gently blow your nose to remove any residual rinse, then repeat the process on the opposite side. Rinse the bottle and allow it to air dry fully each time. You can do this daily initially, but as your sinuses clear you can reduce the frequency to a few times a week. Take a break after a few months. Replace the bottle every few months too.
Given that your hearing loss seems to be one-sided it is worth going along to your GP for a proper check-up. Congestion tends to cause symptoms on both sides, so this is more unusual. An examination might identify a treatable cause. Something simple like wax build-up is easily treated. When a cause can't be found your GP may arrange further tests or specialist review. A formal hearing test will help clarify the degree of hearing loss. A scan may be required if no cause can be identified on examination. This may show polyps or other growths that can cause hearing loss on one side. For large polyps or growths or deformity of the nose surgery may help improve things.