Winter can be a wonderful season filled with holiday cheer, cozy sweaters, hot cocoa, snowball fights, and thrilling sports like skiing and ice skating. Unfortunately, our ears are particularly vulnerable to the cold (especially if hearing aids are worn), so protective measures must be taken to enjoy the season safely.
Low temperatures affect the functioning of nearly all battery-powered electronics (many smartphones will actually turn off when exposed to extreme cold), so always keep extra hearing aid batteries on hand during the winter months. Hearing aids are somewhat protected by your body heat but still need to be cared for properly when worn outside. To prevent damage from moisture such as snow, sweat, and condensation, wipe down the battery compartment with a warm, dry cloth at least once a day, and store your aids in a dehumidifier overnight.
As for the ear itself, cold weather can cause numerous issues if no protective clothing is worn. You may have heard of swimmer’s ear, a painful condition that occurs when water and bacteria become trapped in the ear canal, but did you know there is also a phenomenon called surfer’s ear? While less common than swimmer’s ear and certainly a concern for surfers, anyone can be susceptible under the right conditions. Also known as exostosis, it is an overgrowth of bone in the ear canal resulting from repeated exposure to cold wind. As the canal narrows, earwax can no longer be expressed, which causes buildup. Pain, infection, and hearing loss are all symptoms of exostosis. Fortunately it is reversible, but it requires surgical treatment. Prevention is the best strategy for combating surfer’s ear. Wearing a thick wool hat or earmuffs in cold, windy weather is enough to protect you.
Living with tinnitus? You guessed it: Winter makes that worse as well. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why, but it appears to be related to the constriction of blood vessels. In cold weather, the body redirects blood to keep your internal organs warm and maintain a normal overall body temperature, which leaves extremities such as ears, fingers, toes, and noses with considerably less circulation than they need. This lack of tissue oxygenation often creates and exacerbates ringing in the ears. Warm head coverings are a great way to prevent this, but limiting exposure to icy conditions is even better. Try to stay indoors during blustery days, and if you’ve been out in the snow, warm up with a cup of hot tea containing lemon and cayenne pepper. It’s excellent for circulation!
Another kind of cold that can affect your hearing is the sniffling, sneezing kind. Mild respiratory infections are very common during the winter, so if you find yourself coming down with a cold, take care not to get any water in your ears. Fluid buildup may be inevitable, depending on how severe your illness is, but introducing extra moisture to the ear canal certainly won’t help. If earaches develop, make a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible. Infections should be addressed quickly to ensure the inner ear does not become damaged. Many cases of preventable, though permanent, sensorineural hearing loss result each year from improperly treated ear infections.
Remember: Cold weather can also harden earwax, causing discomfort and making it difficult to remove. It’s never a bad idea to make an appointment with your audiologist for a professional ear cleaning!