Ear conditions, tests and treatments
Loss of hearing is one symptom of conditions affecting the ear. Painful ear conditions such as ear infection are also common among children.
The ears are complex organs that detect sounds and feed the signals to the brain. Our ears are also important to help us balance.
Learn more about the ears, and the conditions that can affect them.
Picture of the ear
The ear is made up of external, middle and inner sections.
The outer ear is called the pinna and is made of ridged cartilage covered by skin. Sound funnels through the pinna into the external auditory canal, a short tube that ends at the eardrum (tympanic membrane).
Sound causes the eardrum and its tiny attached bones in the middle portion of the ear to vibrate. The vibrations are conducted to the nearby cochlea. The spiral-shaped cochlea is part of the inner ear - it transforms sound into nerve impulses that travel to the brain.
The fluid-filled semicircular canals (labyrinth) attach to the cochlea and nerves in the inner ear. They send information on balance and head position to the brain. The Eustachian (auditory) tube drains fluid from the middle ear into the throat (pharynx) behind the nose.
- Earache: Pain in the ear that can have many causes. Some of these are serious, some are not serious.
- Otitis media (middle ear inflammation): Inflammation or infection of the middle ear (behind the eardrum). Usually, this is caused by an infection.
- Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa): Inflammation or infection of the outer ear (pinna and ear canal). Sudden cases are usually infections - chronic (long-term) otitis is often a skin condition (dermatitis).
- Meniere’s disease: A condition in which the inner ear on one side, or both sides, malfunctions. Vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss and a sensation of ear fullness are common symptoms.
- Tinnitus: Ringing in one or both ears. Often this is due to damage from noise exposure or from ageing.
- Cerumen (ear wax) impaction: Ear wax may block the ear canal and adhere to the eardrum. The eardrum’s reduced vibrations impair hearing.
- Ruptured eardrum: Very loud noises, sudden changes in air pressure, or foreign objects, can tear the eardrum. The small hole usually heals within a few weeks.
- Acoustic neuroma: A noncancerous tumour that grows on the nerve travelling from the ear to the brain. Hearing loss, vertigo and tinnitus can be symptoms.
- Mastoiditis: Infection of the mastoid bone, just behind the ear. Mastoiditis was once a common complication of untreated ear infections.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV): A disruption of function in the inner ear, causing episodes of vertigo. Although not medically serious, its symptoms can be distressing.
- Cholesteatoma: This is a benign condition. It is the build-up of fibrous tissue within the middle ear and surrounding bones. Often there is a foul-smelling discharge associated with hearing loss.