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7 Subtle Changes To Ears That Could Be A Sign Of A Health Problem You Shouldn't Ignore

It's so easy to take your normal, functioning body for granted until something happens and it's suddenly out of whack. I didn't appreciate swallowing until I came down with a crazy case of strep, and I didn't appreciate healthy digestion until pregnancy. This is especially true when you're hit with a symptom that affects one of your most vital senses. These seven subtle changes to your ears can be a sign of a health problem that might surprise you, for example — though with something as important as your hearing, these symptoms might not seem so "subtle" at all.

When it comes to my health, I'm a firm believer that ignorance is not bliss. (I also have a terrible habit for consulting Dr. Google for any ache or pain and working myself into a tizzy over nothing, but that's another issue.) Ignoring an annoying symptom for a couple of work days is one thing, but it's never a good idea to continuously put your health on the back burner. These ear and hearing issues, while they can be gradual, merit a trip to your healthcare provider because they can be a sign of something more serious going on in your body. Plus, it's a win-win situation: either you find out that it's nothing, or you catch a problem before it's gotten worse.

1. Worsened/Muffled Hearing

Minor hearing loss can be subtle, noticed only when you're cranking up the volume on your TV or saying, "Sorry, what?" for the third time in a conversation. Some hearing loss is a normal result of aging, and it can also occur temporarily after attending loud events or taking certain medications.

However, various health issues can cause a minor hearing loss or muffled hearing to become a prolonged issue. Things like ear infections, tumors, and bone growths might be behind these issues, according to the Mayo Clinic, as well as various diseases that can cause a high fever, like meningitis.

2. Ringing

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If you've ever experienced tinnitus, or a ringing of the ears, you know how annoying (and exhausting) it can be. Plus, if you're experiencing tinnitus and consult WebMD, you'll stumble upon this super comforting sentence: "It could be temporary, or it might last for the rest of your life." Thanks, WebMD!

If your ears have been ringing for awhile, or you notice it happening repeatedly, book a doctor's appointment to figure out what's causing it. Certain health issues, like ear and sinus infections and high blood pressure, can cause that infuriating noise. Additionally, "Conditions like fibromyalgia and Lyme disease also can trigger ear ringing," states WebMD. The sooner you see your doc, the sooner you can get to the bottom of it.

3. Ear Pain

It's hard to ignore a sore, aching ear. As a survivor of regular childhood ear infections, I can commiserate. And while sometimes the cause is as straightforward as an ear infection, there are actually a variety of medical problems that can manifest in ear pain.

Sinus infections, dental problems, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) can all result in ear discomfort, according to Verywell Health, though they aren't the only potential culprits. If your ear has been hurting for two or more days, or if it's accompanied by other symptoms, schedule that doctor's appointment.

4. Discharge

A little bit of earwax is normal, but any other type of discharge is not. Really, any type of liquid coming from the ear will likely get your attention. "You should call your doctor if the discharge from your ear is white, yellow, or bloody or if you’ve had discharge for more than five days," instructs Healthline.

Ear discharge can commonly be a sign of an infection or an injury, but it can also signal something else. In fact, one little boy treated at Duke University Medical Center experienced bloody discharge from his ears as a symptom of his Crohn's disease. While a simple infection or injury is more likely, you never know until you see a professional.

5. Sensitivity To Noise

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Can you imagine waking up in a world that suddenly had the volume set to LOUD? That's what it's like for people suffering with hyperacusis, "a disorder in loudness perception" that can cause sufferers to be "overly sensitive to a range of sounds, finding many noises unbearable and painfully loud," according to specialists at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

There is not one specific course of treatment for hyperacusis, which makes figuring out the root cause with your doctor so important. Sensitivity to noise has been linked to head trauma, and "other causes may include acoustic trauma, adverse reactions to medicine or surgeries, chronic ear infections, and autoimmune disorders," states UCSF Health. Some people may also find relief through cognitive behavioral therapy, sound therapy, counseling, and lifestyle changes, according to the NHS.

6. Ear Pressure

A common ear-related symptom is a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear... not quite painful, but certainly uncomfortable. If you've found yourself struggling with ears that feel "clogged," and you're not on an airplane, you're not alone.

Sometimes, the cause is for this discomfort is impacted earwax or fluid in the ears, which are both things your doctor can address. Other times, there's a secondary cause. "When you experience an inflammation in your sinus cavities, it can cause your Eustachian tubes to swell. When that happens, the connection between the middle ear and throat is closed which puts pressure on the eardrum causing that clogged ear feeling — or worse — pain and hearing loss," explains Healthy Hearing. Luckily, your doc can provide medication that will alleviate the swelling and get your hearing back to normal.

7. Red/Swollen Ears

You might be used to your cheeks getting a bit rosy, but what the heck does it mean when your ears suddenly turn red? A sunburn is the obvious hypothesis, but there are a few other potential causes.

Bacterial infections, seborrhoeic dermatitis, relapsing polychondritis, and perichondritis are all medical issues that can cause red and swollen ears, according to Healthline. Additionally, there is a condition that is actually called "red ear syndrome," and "symptoms include episodes of redness and burning, particularly in the ear lobe." While reddened ears can often be harmless, it's always smart to see a doctor if it become a prolonged issue.