Why can't I hear in noisy rooms? Will I ever get off steroids?

Am I going deaf?

Whenever there is background noise I have difficulty hearing people. The problem seems to be an inability to pick out the sound of the person talking to me. What can I do to get round it?

People who can't follow conversations at parties or in noisy rooms usually are having problems with binaural hearing. This is the ability to pick up sounds in both ears, and then localise where the sound is coming from. Binaural hearing is important in noisy environments, as it effectively lets you filter out the sounds that you are not interested in. There is a test that was designed in America called the Hearing in Noise Test, which is a sensitive way of identifying this kind of problem. When you take the test you have to listen to spoken sentences and then repeat them back. The sentences are read out in both quiet and noisy conditions. The background noise is played from different directions, and the test measures how well someone can comprehend ordinary speech. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf has a telephone hearing test that tests your ability to hear sounds when there is background noise. Try it on 0845 600 5555. Their helpful website is: www.rnid.org.uk. If the telephone test shows your hearing to be below normal, try to get a referral to a hospital audiology department.

Will I cope without steroid tablets?

For nearly seven months I've been on steroid tablets to control my polymyalgia rheumatica. I've just discovered that if you take them for too long, your adrenal glands shut down because they are no longer needed to produce their own natural steroids. Do they ever recover? If not, how will I ever manage without the tablets?

If you continue to take high doses of steroids for long periods, the adrenal glands will stop producing steroids completely. But they have the ability to recover, so you will definitely not need to stay on steroids indefinitely. As your polymyalgia burns itself out, you will be able to gradually reduce your dose of steroids. As long as you do this gradually, your adrenal glands will gradually "wake up". If you suddenly stop your steroid tablets, your adrenal glands won't be able to cope, because it takes them a while to get going after a period of shutdown. People who use inhaled steroids for asthma or hayfever do not take enough steroids to close down the adrenal glands. The problem only occurs when tablets or injections are taken for long periods.

Please send your questions and suggestions to A Question of Health, The Independent, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2182; or e-mail health@ independent.co.uk. Dr Kavalier regrets that he is unable to respond personally to questions.

Readers write

JR from London fell pregnant unexpectedly at the age of 49:

Nearly eight months after what I thought was my last period, I went to the doctor with what I thought was cystitis – I was having to go the loo every hour or two. It turned out that I was pregnant. Although I had a miscarriage a few weeks later, it was quite a shock while it lasted.