The Human Ear
Did you ever wonder why it is that people returning from winter vacations so often fall sick within a day or two of their return? The reasons are not hard to find.
Although countries in the Caribbean and Latin America have made great strides in cleaning up their water and food supplies, gastrointestinal infections are still prevalent and readily taken up by northerners like us who lack immunity.
And even if you escape the trots, what better place to pick up a cold or the ‘flu’ than on the flight home. The cattle-car conditions of excursion jets, the crowding and recycled air, make them breeding factories for disease.
Even if you dodge all those bugs, you may still find yourself laid low with headache, nausea, dizziness, toothache or sore throat. Any or all of these symptoms can originate with our ears, those wonderfully intricate and sensitive organs that give us our hearing.
It’s often our ears that bear the brunt of a tropical vacation. Snorkling or scuba diving or getting tumbled in the surf can force sea water deep into our aural passages, blocking airways and causing the head-splitting pain that can result from changes in pressure while flying.
Our ears are comprised of three distinct areas: outer, middle and inner. While the first two are involved only with hearing, the inner ear is also the site of organs that control our sense of balance. Water trapped in the aural canal can lead to infection that disrupts the balance mechanism, causing dizziness and nausea.
The middle ear is connected to the throat by the pharyngotympanic tube, an airway that opens when we swallow or yawn, equalizing air pressure in the middle ear cavity with external pressure. When the tube is blocked, we feel pain from the disparity in pressure inside and out. If the difference is great enough, the ear drum will rupture.
This connection between middle ear and throat is the source of otitis media, an infection of the eardrum caused by bacteria invading the aural passage from the throat. Two-thirds of children have had otitis media by the age of two, making it one of the most frequent causes of hearing loss in the young (though the one does not necessarily lead to the other.)
Aside from your vacation, there can of course be many other sources of ear and balance problems. Three-quarters of all vertigo is caused by viral infection, not pressure. Colds or other respiratory infections such as to the adenoids, tonsils or sinuses are a common factor. (The latter may cause the teeth to ache.)
Tinnitus, a ringing or clicking in the ears – it’s a symptom rather than a disease – can be caused by any of several things: nerve degeneration (turn down that car stereo!), a tumour, high blood pressure or a side effect of too much aspirin.
Treating or, better still, preventing disorders of the ear is best achieved by putting your trust in the body’s natural defenses, especially by maintaining a strong immune system. Nutritional and botanical supplements, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, hydrotherapy and eliminating food allergies can all be useful, depending on the circumstances.
And if you are a male and getting up in years, don’t be alarmed if you are looking more and more like Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Men’s ears grow larger in old age, though no one can say why.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2007.