Ear, Nose, Throat

Are cochlear implants a type of hearing aid?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm hard of hearing and want to learn more about cochlear implants. Are they a type of hearing aid?

DEAR READER: A cochlear implant involves several small electronic devices that are surgically implanted in the ear. It can provide sound to people who are severely hard of hearing or deaf. It is not a type of hearing aid. In fact, to be eligible for a cochlear implant, a person must have hearing loss in both ears that is so extreme that even the best hearing aid has little or no effect.

My toddler gets frequent ear infections. Should we consider surgery?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My toddler gets frequent ear infections. His doctor wants me to consider surgery, but that seems much too aggressive to me. Am I wrong?

DEAR READER: I'm not sure what kind of surgery your pediatrician is recommending, but I'll bet it involves putting in ear tubes. I'll explain that below. Ear infections are very common and can make children miserable. Most go away and don't cause problems, even without treatment. But a few can lead to complications, including more serious infections of the bone near the ear or even the brain.

What can I do about my dry mouth?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My mouth and throat are always very dry. As a result, I am constantly sipping water. It's annoying and uncomfortable. Is this normal? Is there anything I can do?

DEAR READER: Dry mouth is not as common as dry eyes (something I have), but it's not uncommon. The medical term for dry mouth is xerostomia (pronounced ZE-ro-STOME-ee-uh), but I'll avoid doctor-speak and call it dry mouth. Usually, dry mouth is mild enough to be an annoyance, as it is with you. However, severe cases can cause complications. Dry mouth can rob you of your sense of taste and can make chewing slow and swallowing difficult. Also, since saliva is important for dental health, dry mouth can contribute to tooth decay and periodontal disease.

I’ve noticed that my sense of taste has dulled. What could be happening?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Over the past year or so I've noticed that my sense of taste isn't as sharp as it used to be. What could be happening?

DEAR READER: Taste buds line your tongue, throat and the back of the roof of your mouth. When food or drink stimulates them, they send a message to your brain allowing you to identify the taste as sweet, sour, bitter, salty or savory. In addition, thousands of nerve endings on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth and throat help you experience the food you're eating. They convey sensations such as heat, cold and texture.

How do you treat tinnitus?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have a constant ringing or buzzing sound in my ears. It's been going on for months. What can I do? It's driving me crazy.

DEAR READER: You probably have a condition called tinnitus. It's pretty common. Many of my patients have it. Occasionally, I have it. It doesn't usually affect your hearing. But it can be really annoying and distracting, enough so that it affects people's level of function.

How strep throat is diagnosed.

DEAR READERS: In yesterday's column, I responded to a reader's question about acute pharyngitis -- inflammation of the throat caused by infection with bacteria or viruses. I was taught that diagnosing and treating a patient with a sore throat was not complicated: The sore throat was caused either by Group A streptococcus ("strep," a kind of bacteria) or by a virus. If a throat culture showed strep, you treated it with penicillin. Simple. But in my view (some colleagues disagree), it's not that simple. The risk from an untreated infection with Group A strep is much lower today in the United States than it was 70 years ago. That means that the value of treatment is reduced. But the chance of side effects from the treatment -- antibiotics -- is not reduced.

What is acute pharyngitis?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I saw my doctor last week, who said I had acute pharyngitis but didn't say what that was. It sounds serious. What is it?

DEAR READER: Good news: It's rarely serious. I know the word "acute" in front of any medical term makes it sound serious. And I know that Latin-based words like "pharyngitis" sound alien. But acute pharyngitis simply means that your throat has become inflamed by something, usually an infection.

How can I make cold sores go away faster?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I get painful cold sores in my mouth every couple of weeks. Why do I get them? And what can I do to make them go away faster?

DEAR READER: Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) Types 1 and 2. HSV Type 1 is the most common cause of cold sores. Type 2 more often causes genital herpes, but it can also produce cold sores. HSV spreads easily from person to person; at least half of all adults are infected with the virus.

Does a runny nose mean I’m getting a cold?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Why does my nose run in cold weather? Does it mean I'm getting a cold?

DEAR READER: Cold air is not only cold, but also dry. The lungs are built to deal with air that is warm and moist. So, a main function of your nose is to make the air you breathe in warm and moist. Bones in the nose (called turbinates) are covered with blood-filled membranes. The blood running through the turbinates is at body temperature: around 98.7 degrees F. The heat in the blood warms the cold air you breathe in.

Do I need surgery to remove a nasal polyp?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I think I have a nasal polyp. Will I need to have surgery to remove it?

DEAR READER: A nasal polyp is a noncancerous tumor that grows from the lining of your nose or sinuses, usually in the nasal passages. Nasal polyps often grow in clusters and obstruct airflow in and out of the nose.