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Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Can kissing make you go deaf?

The Magazine answers...

The ear

A Chinese woman reportedly lost the hearing in one ear while kissing her boyfriend, but is it really possible to burst your ear drum snogging?

Earlier this week, China Daily carried a story taken from a local newspaper that it offered as a cautionary tale on the dangers of kissing.

The woman in Zhuhai in Guangdong province had lost the hearing in her left hear while kissing her boyfriend.

Andrew McCombe, consultant ENT surgeon at Frimley park hospital and spokesman for ENT UK, said it was likely that if the woman's ear drum had been burst by kissing, she was either already suffering from an infection or had some previous weakening.

Kissing could in theory burst your eardrum if you have problems, with your Eustachian tube, or a previously perforated ear drum, but it's extremely unlikely

"If you had a previous perforation of your ear drum, if you had a scar, that would burst more easily. You may only need five or six pounds [extra] pressure per square inch. A normal healthy eardrum is pretty tough.

"She may have had a previous perforation with a thin fragile scar. I don't expect she had completely normal ears."

The theoretical avenue to a kiss-induced burst, would be that the boyfriend was reducing the pressure in the mouth by sucking and that this suddenly lowered the pressure in the middle ear, via the Eustachian tube.

This would mean that the normal atmospheric pressure on the outside of the ear drum would no longer be matched by equal pressure on the other side.

A healthy eardrum in a well person would be extremely robust in the face of changes of pressure of this magnitude.

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"If you had normal ear drums you would need to be kissing like a Dyson hoover," says Mr McCombe.

Dr Rudrapathy Palaniappan, a consultant audiological physician at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, part of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, agreed that perforating a healthy ear drum under such circumstances was extremely unlikely.

But someone with ear problems might just risk a perforation.

"It is possible," he says.

One scenario that might explain the Zhuhai case was if the woman was suffering a rare condition called patulous Eustachian tube, a disorder of the passage that opens to equalise the pressure between the inside of the ear and the outside world.

"The Eustachian tube doesn't open and close as it normally does. Instead it's open most of the time," says Dr Palaniappan.

"If you apply negative pressure to its extreme like aggressive kissing then it's possible that the ear drum can be sucked inwards."

Both Mr McCombe and Dr Palaniappan stressed that they had never encountered a kissing-induced ear drum perforation.

About three-quarters of all perforated ear drum cases involve children with acute ear infections, Mr McCombe said.

The remainder of cases also include people who are slapped or punched hard, which can cause a sudden pressure wave if the opening of the ear is completely covered. Explosion victims can also suffer perforated ear drums.

Despite the high pressure encountered by divers, they did not make up a significant proportion of cases as they avoided going out with a cold or other infection.

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