With a recent drop in temperature and cold weather setting in (by Queensland standards at least!), the hot topic of conversation in the office this week (inspired by 2 days of sub-20 degree temperatures) is why our ears ache when it is cold.
So to start, what is an ear ache? Otalgia, ear pain or an ear ache can be an acute, chronic or a random, one-off occurrence. It might be described as a dull throb, a sharp stabbing pain on an uncomfortable feeling of fullness. All of these might be a symptom of an acute illness requiring medical intervention, but can also be a reflection of harsh environmental conditions or very quick changes in season. In summer, an earache is more common secondary to constant exposure to water and swimming. In winter, it is more often the gusty winds and a drop in temperature that makes them hurt.
Our ears are very sensitive to the cold as they are largely unprotected from the elements. The outermost part of the ear (known as the pinna) is predominantly cartilage without the extra insulating layer of fat surrounding it. This means that the web of nerves and vessels connected to our ears run very close to the surface of our skin, making them more sensitive to changing temperatures. These same conditions can also irritate and inflame the skin in our ear canals and sometimes even reach our eardrum ( a very thin, sensitive membrane) also causing pain and discomfort.
Other than the dull ache we get when we are walking outside on a winter morning, our ears might hurt more in winter due to illnesses including the common cold. The Eustachian Tube connects the middle ear cavity to the back of the nose and throat. This connection prevents a buildup of mucus and fluid in the ear by allowing a path for it to drain away. When we are sneezing and congested, this fluid takes longer to drain and is more likely to stay in our ears. While it will all typically resolve once our cold starts to go away, this can sometimes lead to an ear infection (otitis media) and discomfort. This is more common amongst particular groups (including children) due to the anatomy of our Eustachian Tube which becomes much steeper and easier to clear as we age.
While cold weather will not directly affect your hearing, some of the conditions that are common during winter may! The best thing to do is stay warm, wash your hands and chat to your GP or Audiologist if you have any concerns about your ears.