Yes, wrinkles seem to pop up everywhere as you age—but they could be problematic if one turns up on your earlobes. A diagonal crease in the middle of your earlobe is called Frank’s sign, and studies indicate that it can be a sign of coronary artery disease. Researchers speculate that this may be due to a breakdown of elastic tissue around the small blood vessels both in the ear and around the heart. But if you have the crease, don’t panic, says Nina Shapiro, MD, a professor of Head and Neck Surgery at UCLA and author of HYPE: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice—How to Tell What’s Real and What’s Not. “It is just one marker,” she explains, “and it should simply encourage one to incorporate healthy habits, see one’s doctor for regular checkups, and be vigilant for any potential signs and symptoms of cardiac issues, [such as] shortness of breath, chest pain, and exercise intolerance.”
Hearing loss can affect more than just your hearing: According to AARP, a number of studies link hearing loss to both cognitive decline—loss of memory and focus—and dementia. Johns Hopkins researchers, for example, found that people with moderate hearing loss had three times the risk of developing dementia compared to people without hearing issues. While the exact cause remains unknown, scientists theorize that this could be due to the brain working overtime while straining to hear, an atrophying of certain parts of the brain, or the effects of social isolation from hearing loss. Unfortunately, many people don’t seek the help they need: The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) reports that nearly 29 million adults in the United States could benefit from using hearing aids, though fewer than 30 percent of those over 70 have used them. Even if you’re not experiencing any auditory problems, you should listen up: These 11 surprising things could ruin your hearing.
Hearing loss in one ear
Hearing loss in one ear can be caused by anything from trauma or infection to a buildup of fluid in the inner ear. But in rare cases, it could be caused by a tumor—likely, a benign acoustic neuroma, which grows on the nerve of the inner ear. Ninety percent of patients who have acoustic neuromas show one-sided hearing loss, says Ariel B. Grobman, MD, an adult and pediatric ENT based in South Florida, and 80 percent have one-sided ear ringing. “Tumor growth in the tight, bony passage of the internal auditory canal puts pressure on the adjacent structures—namely, the nerves supplying hearing, balance, and in rare cases the nerve controlling facial movement,” he explains. “As a result, these patients display hearing loss, imbalance, tinnitus, and sometimes facial droop/weakness. If any of these symptoms persist, seek out an ENT, undergo testing, and receive an MRI.”
Ringing in ears
If you have tinnitus, the technical name for that annoying ringing in ears, you are not alone: According to the American Tinnitus Association and the CDC, more than 50 million Americans experience it to some degree, and 20 million have a chronic form of it. While ear ringing is usually caused by something as simple as being exposed to loud noises, having an ear infection, or taking certain medications, it can also signify a larger health problem. Possibilities include high blood pressure or high cholesterol, the inner-ear disorder Meniere’s disease, a tumor, hormonal changes due to menopause, or, if you’re pregnant, preeclampsia. The bottom line: See a doctor if you experience ringing in ears, especially since tinnitus can impact your well-being. “It can really make people anxious and cause insomnia,” says Dr. Shapiro. “It’s always good to have the ears checked by a doctor, and also consider getting an audiogram (a formal hearing test) to make sure there is no abnormality in ear function.” Check out these 14 effective tinnitus cures to try if you have ringing in your ears.
If you’ve got an itch that you just can’t scratch enough to make it stop, you’re likely looking at fungus or eczema in your ears, says Dr. Shapiro. Here’s how to tell the difference: If it’s a fungus, there will be a buildup of white, feta cheese–type gunk in the ear canal, while eczema usually causes white flakes and makes the ear canal—and sometimes the outer ear—very red. Dr. Shapiro adds that scratching from eczema can actually prime the ear for a fungal infection. Either way, you shouldn’t ignore the itch: “The debris can build up in the ear canal, causing even more itching, discharge, and temporary hearing loss,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Ears shouldn’t itch, so if your ear itches for more than a day or so, get it checked out.”
An earache may not be about your ear at all. Sure, the most likely culprit is an ear infection—either of the middle ear, likely due to a cold or allergies, or of the outer ear, from swimmer’s ear—or even impacted earwax. But, according to WebMD, it could also be “referred pain” from a toothache or the jaw joint under your ears (the temporomandibular joint—TMJ), cellulitis from an infected piercing, a tumor, or even a bad sore throat. If your child is prone to ear troubles, you won’t want to miss these 9 earache and ear infection home remedies every parent should know.
Wet, sticky earwax
Believe it or not, earwax with this consistency might tell you something about your breasts. Yes, you read that right. According to Japanese researchers, people with wet, sticky earwax have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, due to a mutation on the ABCC11 gene. While this doesn’t mean that you have breast cancer or will necessarily develop it, it may be something to keep in mind, especially if your personal risk factors and family history raise concern. But in general, says Dr. Grobman, earwax (aka cerumen) is not only perfectly normal but also beneficial: It keeps particles and bacteria out of the external ear canal. “Earwax buildup may be a sign of overall skin oiliness or even sloughing, but otherwise I would not attribute any link between cerumen buildup and overall health,” he adds. “As I tell my squeamish patients: Even supermodels have earwax buildup!”
When your ears turn red, it could be caused by something as simple as flushing from embarrassment, or it could also be something more complex. One culprit is hormonal change, including menopause. Hot flashes often center on the upper body and face, which can include the ears. If it is menopause, you may also experience a host of other symptoms, including another ear-related one—ringing in your ears. Another, much less common, possibility for red ears that can affect both men and women is Red Ear Syndrome (RES). If you have this condition, red ears are accompanied by a burning sensation that can either be mild and achy or more sharp and severe. Researchers have also found a link between RES, migraines, and cluster headaches.
Unusually shaped ears or the presence of skin tags
Numerous studies suggest that structural abnormalities of the ear or the presence of skin tags (a small, fleshy skin growth) on the ear at birth can be a sign of potential kidney problems. In fact, if your newborn exhibits any of these markers, your pediatrician may request an ultrasound or other kidney tests.
In general, numbness on its own isn’t cause for alarm. But when this is paired with other telltale symptoms, it could be a different story. For example, according to Healthline, if you’re also experiencing arm weakness, facial drooping, or difficulty speaking, you could be having a stroke and should head to the ER or call for an ambulance immediately. Or if you have recurrent vertigo, hearing loss, and ear ringing along with the numbness, it might be Meniere’s disease (a cause of hearing loss). Ear numbness could also be a sign that your diabetes isn’t being managed well; you may also have the tingling and numbness in your extremities known as peripheral neuropathy. Of course, numbness could also be something a lot less serious. It could be a sign of nerve damage, an infection, or an earwax blockage. Regardless, don’t dismiss it—and don’t miss these 5 silent signs of hearing loss you may be ignoring.