How to Care for Your Ears


Voltaire called the ear the "road to the heart." It seems an apt description. Consider how a child's cry, a romantic song, or the thump of a neighbor's stereo at 3 a.m. can stir your emotions.

Ears not only let us hear, but they also play a role in maintaining our balance, which is vital to our ability to function in daily life. Yet, we ignore them. We can't even see our ears, except in a mirror. We take for granted what they do for us day in and day out -- until we notice something's wrong, such as when an earache strikes or when we start having to ask people to repeat what they say. This article will tell you all the vital information you need about ear care, including:

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  • ">Protecting Your EarsEveryone knows that loud noises can damage your ears, but there are many other ways to injure the delicate mechanisms that allow us to hear. Foreign objects or sudden blows to the ear can damage the eardrum, resulting in temporary or, in some cases, permanent hearing loss.  In this section, we tell you how to avoid the common mistakes people make that damage their ears and we will tell you the best ways to cope with loud noises. We will also tell you how many decibels are too many and how loud the rustle of leaves are compared to a jet engine.
  • Preventing Ear ProblemsAside from making sure you don't puncture your eardrum with a foreign object, there are other steps you need to take to prevent some common ear problems. One common ear nuisance is swimmer's ear. This is a condition that can result when bacteria grow inside the ear canal, and it can be quite painful. We will tell you how to prevent and treat this infection. We will also tell you the day-to-day maintenance you need to do for your ears to keep them healthy and problem free.
  • Ear InfectionsAnyone with small children is probably well versed in middle ear infections. Ear infections are the most common illness in infants and small children. While adults do get ear infections, they are much more serious for children. This is partly because they are much more apt to get them, and partly because the symptoms can be more severe for children. In this section, we will give you some tips for preventing your child from getting middle ear infections, as well as some tips for what to do when the eventually develop one.
  • Ear DisordersThe ear infections and damage to the ear from excessively loud noises that we mentioned in the previous sections are usually only temporary ear problems. However, some simple ear inconveniences can result serious, lasting disorders.  Deafness, a lack of balance, and a constant ringing in the ears are all signs of serious problems. In this section, we give a guide to the various ear disorders and how to treat them. We will also tell you how you can the difference between an ear problem you can take care of yourself and one that needs a doctor's attention.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Protecting Your Ears

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Our ears can be very vulnerable to injury.

Our ears can benefit from some tender loving care. Here are some ways to provide it.

Ear Accidents

Because we can't see our ears' inner workings as they transmit sound waves to our brain, we forget our ears can be vulnerable to injury. For instance, a slap on the ear or an injury while diving could cause a ruptured eardrum, the thin membrane that separates the outer ear from the middle ear.

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But one of the most common causes of ruptured eardrum and other ear damage is putting an object into the ear. All too often, people do this because they think they're doing their ears some good -- such as relieving an itch or cleaning out wax. But, indeed, you can do serious harm. The old folk wisdom about not putting anything in your ear smaller than an elbow, though exaggerated, isn't such bad advice.

Acoustical Trauma

Being close to an explosion can leave you deaf instantly. Other acoustical damage, however, leads to hearing loss that comes on more slowly.

We live in an age when acoustical trauma -- injury from sound -- abounds, and we often don't even realize the potential for harm. It begins early in life. Studies have shown that as many as 60 percent of entering college freshmen already display some hearing loss. Much of that may be due to what's come to be commonly called noise pollution.

Loud noise can harm hearing by damaging the sensitive, tiny hair cells in the inner ear. Certain conditions can make these hair cells even more sensitive than usual. During aerobic exercise our blood diverts from our ears to our legs, arms, and heart. This altered blood flow makes the hair cells more vulnerable to noise. Thus, many fitness experts warn that you double your risk of permanent hearing loss when you jog while wearing headphones. Likewise, dancing to a blaring stereo boosts the already high potential for hearing damage. Recent studies have confirmed that many people have damaged hearing as a result of listening to loud music, either from frequent attendance at rock concerts or through the pervasive use of portable music players.

Damage from noise is related to two factors: loudness and duration. Loudness is measured in decibels. One point to remember about decibel scales is that an increase of only three decibels results in a doubling of sound pressure. So a jackhammer at 120 decibels is emitting much, much more than twice as much sound pressure as a normal conversation of 60 decibels.

When is enough, enough? Here are a couple simple tests to determine if you are submitting yourself to dangerous levels of sound.

  • If you are exposed to noise that makes it hard to understand someone a couple feet away who's speaking in a normal conversational voice, you're probably being exposed to about 90 decibels. Frequent exposure to that level can lead to hearing loss.
  • If after being exposed to noise, from any source, you have a slight, high-pitched ringing and a sense of fullness in your ears, you're experiencing a temporary loss of hearing ability. If that happens two or more times a week on a regular basis, you could be on your way to permanent hearing damage.

The solution is obvious: Stop the noise. Keep the boom box at a reasonable volume. If your headphones are so loud someone standing next to you can hear the music, you're overdoing it. The use of ear buds, rather than headphones, is thought to have a negative effect on hearing because the user must turn up the volume more to compensate for the outside noise that can get past the ear buds. Turn it down, and limit the length of exposure time.If you can't stop the noise because you work in a noisy environment, then shield your ears against it. Protective devices include acoustic earplugs or muffs. Some potential ear problems are not as obvious as loud noises. In the next section, you will learn how to prevent some other, less obvious, ear problems.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Preventing Ear Problems

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear canal.

Here are some tips for avoiding some typical ear problems.

Swimmer's Ear

Warm, sunny days on the beach are fun. Coping with swimmer's ear is not -- nor is it inevitable.

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Swimmer's ear (called otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear canal, usually caused by common bacteria, sometimes by a fungus. The condition can crop up when bacteria nestle into an outer ear canal that is warm and moist -- conditions bacteria love. Being in the water a lot not only creates those conditions, but it tends to wash away the natural oily, waxy substance that normally lines and protects the ear canal. Bacteria can then get the upper hand, and you get an infection.

Actually, other activities besides swimming can trigger a case of otitis externa. For instance, water can be left in your ear after taking a shower. Or water may not be involved at all: Poking around with a bobby pin or cotton-tipped swab can scratch the delicate skin in the ear canal and break down the barrier against bacteria.

Whatever the cause, swimmer's ear usually starts with an itching or tingling in the ear. Resist the urge to scratch; that will make the problem worse. In more severe cases, you may experience pain and discharge, or even have some hearing loss due to swelling of the ear canal. One way to tell if the infection is in the outer ear -- and not deeper inside -- is if your ear hurts when you gently pull on it and wiggle it.

But swimmer's ear isn't an inevitable outcome of a day at the pool or beach. Here are a few simple preventive measures:

  • Avoid swimming in dirty water where there will be more bacteria.
  • Don't let the water sit in your ear. Usually you can feel it swishing around in there. Shake the water out after a shower or swim.
  • Use over-the-counter antiseptic ear drops if you're a frequent swimmer to prevent infections from occurring. Or whip up an antiseptic mixture of your own using equal amounts of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Don't do this if your eardrum is not completely intact. Check with your doctor before using this technique to be sure it's safe for you.
  • Use a swimming cap to keep the water out.
  • Don't poke around in your outer ears with anything. Doing so will remove nature's protection against bacteria.

Checkups: Most people only get their ears checked when they're bothered by them. There may be nothing wrong with that. Hard and fast rules don't exist on how often to get a hearing exam, but there are a couple points to keep in mind.

Cleaning: Contrary to what many people think, most of the time it's best to just leave earwax alone. It's in your ear for a good reason: to trap dust, bacteria, and other particles that might cause injury, irritation, or infection. Sometimes, however, earwax builds up. Even so, ears are self-cleaning for the most part. Jaw movements when you eat and talk eventually push wax to the outer ear, where you can easily remove it by wiping with a damp piece of cotton.

Only when the earwax is causing discomfort or getting in the way of hearing should you do something to remove it from inside -- and then with extreme care. Cotton-tipped swabs should come with a warning label: DO NOT PUT IN YOUR EARS. Many people use them just for that purpose. But swabs can do more harm than good by pushing the wax deeper into your ear canal, even up against your eardrum, where it will interfere with hearing. Not only that, but they can also harm the delicate lining of the ear canal or poke a hole in your eardrum, either of which can lead to infection.

If earwax is truly bothering you and you need it removed, have a doctor do it for you. Steer clear of using over-the-counter drops to soften wax until you check with a doctor. If the problem is something other than earwax, the drops may exacerbate it.

Far and away the most common ear problem for children are infections. In the next section, we will tell you how to prevent and treat this problem.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Ear Infections

�2006 Publications International, Ltd. Researchers estimate that at least 75 percent of children experience at least one ear infection during  the first three years of life.

Middle-ear infection (known medically as otitis media) is the most common illness in babies and young children. Researchers estimate that at least 75 percent (and possibly more than 90 percent) of children experience at least one such infection during the first three years of life, and close to 50 percent get three or more ear infections during those early years.

Of course, children aren't the only ones who get ear infections. But they are, by far, the most common victims. Adults are more likely to get an infection of the outer ear, which is aptly referred to as "swimmer's ear" because it usually gets its start when water containing bacteria or fungi seeps into the ear and gets trapped in the ear canal.

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In order to understand how middle-ear infections develop, it helps to know how healthy ears function. The outer ear is connected to an air-containing space called the middle ear. The eardrum, a thin membrane, is stretched across the entrance to the space, and three tiny sound-conducting bones are suspended within it. The pressure within the middle-ear space is equalized with the atmosphere through a narrow tube called the eustachian tube. The eustachian tube opens into a space behind the nose where air or fluid may enter or escape. The air pressure in the middle ear is equalized more than one thousand times a day -- every time you swallow -- usually without you noticing it. The eustachian tube also carries fluid away from the middle ear.

When a cold or an allergy is present, the eustachian tube swells and air is absorbed by the lining of the middle ear, creating a partial vacuum. The eardrum then gets pulled inward, and fluid weeps from the lining of the middle ear. Bacteria or viruses from the nose and throat can travel up the eustachian tube and infect the stagnant, warm fluid in the middle ear, which provides a perfect environment for them to live and multiply. When this happens, an infection is underway.

Children may be more prone to middle-ear infections for a variety of reasons. For example, their eustachian tubes are shorter and straighter than those in adults, which may make it easier for bacteria and viruses to penetrate. Children get colds and sore throats more often than adults. And the immune system is not as fully developed during childhood as it is in adulthood.

Preventing Ear Infections

Steer your child clear. Since middle-ear infections generally start with a cold or other upper respiratory infection, you'll help protect your child from ear infections by keeping him or her away from other kids who have infections. Making sure that any nasal allergies that your child has are well controlled can also be beneficial. And if you are in the process of choosing a day-care facility for your child, check into the center's policy for dealing with children who are ill.

Teach proper nose-blowing technique. Once your child is old enough, teach him or her to blow his or her nose softly rather than with excessive force, so as not to drive infection into the ears. And teach your child not to stifle a sneeze by pinching the nostrils, since this, too, may force the infection up into the ears.

Don't smoke. Here's another reason not to smoke: Children who live with smokers seem to be more susceptible to middle-ear infections than are those who live in smokefree homes. Cigarette smoke irritates the linings of the nasal passages and middle-ear cavity, which in turn interferes with the normal functioning of the eustachian tube. If you cannot quit, at least take your habit outside.

Be careful with bottle-feeding. Avoid giving a bottle of milk or formula to a baby who is lying on his or her back, because the nutrient-rich liquid can flow into the eustachian tube during swallowing and pool there, creating a luxurious breeding ground for infectious organisms.

Stay alert to the signs. It is essential to get your child to the doctor as soon as you suspect an ear infection, but to do that, you need to be aware of the symptoms that can signal an ear infection. An older child who has an ear infection may complain of ear pain or aching or a stuffiness in the ear. In a younger child who cannot yet describe an earache, you need to be alert to other signs that may signal an imminent ear infection, such as pulling on or rubbing the ear, any trouble with hearing or balance, crying more than usual, or fluid draining from the ear. (Signs that an infection has taken hold include fever, crying, rubbing the ear, nausea, and vomiting.)

Treating an Ear Infection

If you suspect your child has an ear infection, you should take the child to the doctor at once. If a middle-ear infection is treated promptly, it is not serious. If not treated right away, your child might suffer hearing loss and, as a result, a delay in learning and speech development. Once your child has seen the doctor, however, there are some things you can do to help make your little one more comfortable.

Follow through on the doctor's instructions. Your job doesn't end with a visit to the doctor. You will need to be sure that your child receives any medication prescribed by the doctor. Be sure, too, that you understand and follow the directions for administering the medicine (call your doctor or pharmacist with any questions). If an antibiotic has been prescribed, it's especially important that your child take the medication for the full time prescribed.

�2006 Publications International, Ltd. It is important that you follow all of your doctor's instructions to ensure that your child's ear infection is completely gone.

Keep your child's chin up. If your child is lying down, prop his or her head up on pillows. Elevating the head will help keep the eustachian tubes draining into the back of the throat.

Try mild heat. Applying a heating pad set on warm -- not hot -- to the affected ear may make your child more comfortable.

Give acetaminophen. Try giving your child acetaminophen to help relieve pain and fever. Do not, however, give your child aspirin. Aspirin use in children with a viral illness has been associated with Reye's syndrome, an often fatal condition characterized by severe, sudden deterioration of liver and brain function. For a list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics, click here.

We've covered most of the ear difficulties you will encounter, but there are more serious problems, such as deafness or tinnitus. Turn to the next section for an examination of other ear disorders.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Ear Disorders

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. A simple ear problem can result in hearing loss or deafness.

If you are exposed to high decibels for a prolonged period of time you can develop a serious ear condition. Other hearing disorders are only temporary. Here is a quick guide.

Deafness and Hearing Loss

Hearing loss falls into two categories: conductive, which involves sound transmission abnormalities in the middle and outer ear, and sensorineural, which involves the inner ear. Conductive loss can usually be corrected; sensorineural is much more difficult to treat.

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Conductive hearing loss might result, for example, when impacted earwax prevents sounds from reaching the inner ear, where sounds are translated into electric nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain. Other causes of conductive loss might be an injury to the eardrum or a middle-ear infection.

In sensorineural loss, there is nerve failure. Thus, even though sound vibrations reach the inner ear, they don't get sent on as impulses to the brain. This type of hearing loss results from nerve damage, which can be caused by old age, viral infection, loud noises, or the side effects of medication, to name just a few.

Deafness, or the total absence of hearing, can result from either conductive or sensorineural loss, or a mix of the two types. Whenever you suspect hearing loss, you need to see an ear specialist who can identify the root cause or causes.

The best way to deal with hearing loss is to do all you can to prevent it in the first place. But if you already have hearing loss, a hearing aid may help.

Today's hearing aids have gone high-tech; they're much sleeker, smaller, and more effective than the devices of yesteryear. There are three main types: behind the ear, in the ear, and in the canal, each having particular advantages and disadvantages. The canal version is smallest and, therefore, least visible, but because of its limited size it can't hold as much circuitry and isn't as versatile in its functions. It amplifies all sounds equally, rather than being programmable to amplify sounds selectively.

The effectiveness of hearing aids comes down to a few key factors. First, the doctor must prescribe the type of hearing aid that's right for the individual. The wearer also has to use the device properly and communicate their needs clearly to the doctor. Just as important, the user must have realistic expectations about what the hearing aid can do.

Earache

When you have an earache, suddenly your ears seem bigger than life. The pain distracts every thought and absorbs every ounce of your attention. And you just want it to end.

Earaches can be caused by a blocked eustachian tube -- the thin tube that connects the inside back portion of the nose with the middle ear. The air in the middle ear is constantly being absorbed by its membranous lining, but the air is never depleted as long as the eustachian tube remains open and able to resupply air during the process of swallowing. In this manner, the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. But when the eustachian tube is blocked, the pressure in the middle ear can't be equalized. The air that's already there is absorbed and, without an incoming supply, a vacuum occurs in the middle ear, sucking the eardrum inward and stretching it painfully taut.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Air travel is a common cause of ear aches.

This type of earache is particularly common in people who travel by air, especially when they have a cold or stuffy nose. The air pressure in the middle ear doesn't equalize on takeoff and landing as it would if the eustachian tube were unblocked.

Another leading cause of earache is ear infection. Infections of the middle ear are extremely common in children. This sort of infection develops when bacteria or viruses--usually from colds or sore throats--make their way up the eustachian tube. As a result of the infection, the eardrum can become swollen and inflamed.

Because an untreated ear infection can lead to permanent hearing loss, and because ear pain can sometimes reflect a problem in another part of the body, it's important to have an earache checked by a doctor.

Labyrinthitis

Severe dizziness or vertigo -- a sensation that the room is spinning -- is scary and can stir worries that something is dreadfully wrong. If it happens to you, you should see a doctor immediately. It's possible that the root of your problem is labyrinthitis, an infection of the labyrinth -- a group of fluid-filled chambers in the inner ear. The labyrinth controls balance. Even though the vertigo will make it extremely difficult for you to function, the infection itself is not dangerous. Bed rest is usually the main treatment. Your doctor may give you medications to combat the dizziness, as well as the nausea and vomiting you may also experience. In most cases, symptoms clear up within one to three weeks. Recurrent episodes of vertigo should be investigated by a physician as they can represent some other underlying condition.

Tinnitus

Everyone gets a little ringing in their ears at times. But when it goes on incessantly, it can drive you nuts. The medical name for this ringing-in-the-ear sensation is tinnitus. It is the result of damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear. These hair cells pick up sound vibrations and send electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain. In tinnitus, the hair cells are "on" all the time, making the brain think that sound vibrations are entering the ear nonstop.Possible causes of tinnitus include acoustical trauma (loud noise), earwax, infection, the side effect of certain medications (more than 200 medications can case tinnitus), a perforated eardrum, fluid accumulation, high blood pressure, a tumor, diabetes, and aging.To stop the buzz, try the following:

  • Stop the loud noise, or wear ear protection.
  • Keep your blood pressure down.
  • Cut down on salt, which may sometimes be a problem for tinnitus sufferers.
  • Limit aspirin; chronic intake (or even frequent use over one or two days) can cause tinnitus. Talk to your physician before stopping any medication that you think might be causing tinnitus.
  • Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and addictive substances, which can also trigger tinnitus.
  • Work it out; if poor circulation is the cause of ringing in your ears, exercise will help.
  • Be sure you're getting enough rest.

It's important to take care of your ears to prevent serious problems from occurring. Hopefully, you can now also tell the difference between the ringing in your ears after a concert and the signs of a serious problem.©Publications International, Ltd.This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.