In ideal situations, ears take care of themselves. The most delicate parts of the ear are protected within the structure of the head. A normal amount of wax is secreted by the outer ear to protect the eardrum from dust and dirt. This wax naturally moves out of the ear, taking small particles with it. Unfortunately, anyone with a small child knows that ideal is not our normal state of affairs. Some children have frequent earaches and some must have tubes inserted in their ears. Adults commonly have wax buildup that interferes with hearing. More seriously, permanent hearing loss can occur. This section offers tips for healthy ears and provides links to more in–depth information.
Exposure to loud noise is the number one cause of preventable hearing loss according to the National Organization for Hearing Research Foundation. According to OSHA, more than 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of noise on the job. Of the 28 million people in the United States with hearing loss, noise is at least partially the cause. Sounds that are too loud, or that occur over a long time, can damage the delicate inner ear. To best understand how the ear works and how sound impacts the ear, read the section on Noise Induced Hearing Loss at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Sounds that may cause hearing loss (over 90 decibels) include traffic noise, a firing gun, motorcycles, lawn equipment, firecrackers, woodworking tools, production machinery, snowmobiles, loud music (not just Rock ‘n Roll). Any very loud sound, in a sharp burst or fluctuating over time, can cause a permanent loss of hearing.
Fortunately, noise induced hearing loss is also the most preventable. The following tips are from the NIDCD website.
- Know which noises can cause damage (those above 90 decibels).
- Wear earplugs or other hearing protective devices when involved in a loud activity (special earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware stores and sporting good stores).
- Be alert to hazardous noise in the environment.
- Protect children who are too young to protect themselves.
- Make family, friends, and colleagues aware of the hazards of noise.
- Have a medical examination by an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, throat, head, and neck, and a hearing test by an audiologist, a health professional trained to identify and measure hearing loss and to rehabilitate persons with hearing impairments.
As this chart shows, modern culture contains many harmful sounds.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
110 Decibels — Regular exposure of more than 1 minute risks permanent hearing loss.
100 Decibels — No more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure recommended.
90 Decibels — Prolonged exposure to any noise above 90 dB can cause gradual hearing loss.
Are you hurting your hearing?
140 Decibels — Rock concerts, firecrackers
120 Decibels — Boom cars: Snowmobiles
110 Decibels — Chainsaws
100 Decibels — Wood shop
90 Decibels — lawn mower: motorcycle
80 Decibels — City traffic
60 Decibels — Normal conversation
40 Decibels — Refrigerator humming
20 Decibels — Whispered voice
0 Decibel — Threshold of normal hearing
Any time we experience a change in outside air pressure (air travel, diving under water, driving up a steep hill) there is a pressure change within the ear. This may cause a pop or a feeling of the ear being blocked. It can be quite painful if the ear does not quickly equalize the pressure. There are some easy tricks to balance the air pressure in your ears. For a complete explanation of how and why this occurs, and what to do about it, see the ENT Net discussion on Ears and Altitude.
Earplanes are a product designed to slow air–pressure changes during air travel take off and landings. For more information see your hearing product distributor or this website: http://www.earplanes.com
Earwax is normally secreted in the outer ear. Normal amounts of wax trap small particles of dust and dirt, and move the material out of the ear. A washcloth or shower will rinse away this wax. Cotton swabs, pencil erasers, paper clips, and other small objects should NEVER be inserted in the ear. These items can push the earwax down towards the eardrum. Wax blockages are a common cause of hearing loss and can be prevented.
- Wipe your outer ear with a washcloth or tissue for cleansing.
- Never put anything smaller than an adult finger with a cloth over it (or an elbow!) into the ear canal.
- If a wax blockage develops, use an over–the–counter eardrop intended for dissolving wax.
- More serious wax blockages will need a doctor’s attention.
- DON’T try to dig the wax out yourself with any small device.
- For more information see ENT NET
Ear infections (also called Otitis media) are painfully common for young children. Adults get ear infections also, but not nearly as often. Ear infections occur when a virus or bacteria gets inside the ear. A cold or flu can be the initial source of infection. If fluid builds up in the middle ear, due to a prior infection, new infections will be more likely. Ear infections should receive medical attention. If not treated, ear infections can cause permanent hearing loss or the infection can spread to other structures in the head.
For complete information on ear infections, see these web sites:
Symptoms of Ear Infection
The following symptoms are from ENT Net.
“In infants and toddlers look for pulling or scratching at the ear, especially if accompanied by the following...
- hearing problems
- crying, irritability
- ear drainage
In young children, adolescents, and adults look for:
- feeling of fullness or pressure
- hearing problems
- dizziness, loss of balance
- nausea, vomiting
- ear drainage
Moisture in the outer ear, from swimming or showering, can cause an infection in the outer ear. Water may carry bacterial or fungal particles. When the ear dries, the bacteria and fungi dry up and do not cause problems. If water gets trapped in the ear, creating a moist environment, the particles can grow, resulting in infection.
To prevent swimmer’s ear, dry ears after exposure to water. The best way to dry ears is with a hair dryer. DO NOT use a cotton swab (Q–Tip). This may cause material to be pushed further into the ear, increasing the chance of infection. If you do not have a perforated eardrum, rubbing alcohol or a 50:50 solution of alcohol and vinegar may be used as drops. This will help to evaporate excess moisture.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear from ENT Net:
- Mild to moderate pain in the outer ear.
- Pain feels worse when the ear is tugged at the earlobe.
- Itchy ear
- Blocked sensation in the ear
- Swollen glands
- More severe pain radiating into the face, neck, and head
- Outer ear seems to be pushed forward, away from the head
Treatment for a mild infection may be with careful cleaning and eardrops. More serious infections, or if the eardrum is perforated, will require more extensive medical care.
See ENT Net for additional information.