Ear Health Info

There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation when it comes to earwax and cleaning the ears. While many consider earwax (also known as cerumen) to be dirty, the truth is that it serves a very important function.  Earwax is responsible for keeping your ears clean, and it also protects them from trauma as well as infection. An insect that enters the ear can cause problems, but earwax is designed to prevent this from happening.

Avoid cotton swabs

The ears should never be cleaned with cotton swabs under any circumstances. When cotton swabs (also known as Q-tips) are applied to the ears, you push the ear wax deeper inside the ear canal. The wax presses up against your eardrum, which can damage the external ear or possibly rupture the eardrum itself. It is not necessary to clean the ear in this way, and when you do, the body will actually produce more earwax.

When your jaw moves, the earwax will gradually be forced out of the ear canal. Earwax is responsible for capturing dirt or contaminants before they can enter your ear, so getting rid of it will make your ear more vulnerable to infection. Sometimes after showering or bathing people may notice water in their ears, and may be tempted to use a cotton swab in order to clean it out. A much better method is to evaporate the liquid by using a hair dryer to blow air into your ears. Earwax which is outside your ears can be removed through normal bathing.

Apply mineral oil to your ears rather than sprays

Mineral oil which is at room temperature is excellent for cleaning out earwax. Many people use baby oil, but baby oil should be avoided because it uses perfumes that may be irritating to the ears. Some people also use specially designed earwax sprays, but these have not been shown to be very effective. When your ears are blocked due to excessive wax, it is best to take a cotton ball that has been dipped into mineral oil, and then apply it to your ear canal for ten to twenty minutes. You will need to lean sideways with the ear where the cotton ball will be applied facing upwards.

Your ears will produce excess wax when irritated

If you notice that your ears tend to produce an abnormal amount of wax, this could be a sign that something could be irritating them. For instance, if you use ear buds a lot, your ears could become irritated and respond by increased wax production. People who have a skin ailment called eczema may also notice an increased amount of earwax within their ear canals. When this happens it is best to apply mineral oil, and if this doesn’t work you should contact your doctor. Some earwax is necessary for the healthy functioning of your ears, so it is best to discontinue using cotton swabs and other methods to completely remove it. If you still want it to be removed or flushed out manually, contact your doctor for assistance.

Changes in technology have made the world a noisier place, and exposure to loud noises can damage your hearing over time. This is especially true if you work in an environment with lots of loud machinery. Understanding how the ear works is the first step towards protecting yourself from excessive noise which can damage your ears.

How hearing loss occurs

The human ear is comprised of three areas, and these are the external ear, middle ear and internal ear. The external ear is the only part visible and it is connected to the ear canal. The eardrum sits between the ear canal and the middle ear. The middle ear houses small bones which are responsible for transmitting sound into the internal ear. Once sound reaches the internal ear, the vibrations are transformed into nerve impulses, and the brain will then interpret them.

When the ear is exposed to a noise that is excessively loud, it will damage the nerve endings within the internal ear. If the ear is exposed to the noise for too long, these nerve endings will be completely destroyed. The destruction of these nerve endings will lead to a gradual loss of hearing or a sudden hearing loss if the sound is sufficiently loud (such as an explosion). Once the nerve endings within the ear die, there is no way to restore them. The longer a person is exposed to loud noise, the greater the damage will be.

How to know when a noise is excessive

The noise sensitivity of different people will vary. The elderly tend to be the most sensitive to noise, while children tend to be much less sensitive. However, as a general rule of a thumb, a noise is hazardous to your hearing if you’re at arm’s length from someone and they have to shout so you can hear them.  Obviously, if the noise is causing pain in your ears, or you detect a ringing sensation, this is a sign that you need to get out of the area where the noise is emanating, or shut off the source if possible.

Noise level is determined by intensity, and is measured in decibels, as well as pitch and duration. Excessive exposure to loud noise may lead to a condition called tinnitus, or ringing within the ears. In addition to the effects that excessive noise has on the ears, some other warning signs of excessive noise exposure include:

  • Increased pulse rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased anxiety and irritation
  • An increase in stomach acid
  • Increased difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep deprivation

How to protect yourself against excessive noise

Those who work in environments which are excessively noisy should wear ear protection. This protection must be capable of reducing the noise while also allowing you to communicate with others. Hearing protection should be worn whenever power tools are used, as well as when you operate farm equipment or firearms. Hearing protection is also important when riding vehicles such as motorcycles. Earplugs and earmuffs are the most common form of hearing protection, but both have their advantages and disadvantages.

The ear can be divided into three areas, and these are the external ear (also known as the pinna), the middle ear and the internal ear. These areas of the ear function as follows:

  • The external portion of the ear is partially responsible for allowing a child to determine the location for sound, whether it is behind, above, below or ahead of their position.
  • The pinna is also responsible for funneling and concentrating sound waves as they pass into the middle ear.
  • The middle ear contains the auditory canal, which ends near the eardrum, which is also referred to as the tympanic membrane.

Structure of the ear

On the opposite side of the eardrum are three small bones which are referred to as ossicles. The three bones which comprise the ossicles are called the malleus, incus and the stapes. The ossicles are attached to the cochlea, which is a structure filled with fluid in the internal ear.

The cochlea is one of the most important parts of the ear, as this is where the transmitted vibrations sent through the eardrum are transformed into electrical signals which are sent through the auditory nerve into the brain. The internal ear, which is encapsulated by bone, contains a number of canals which are designed to provide equilibrium for hearing.

The ossicles within a child’s ear can become stiff and muted through a contraction within the stapedius muscle. This gives them a degree of protection against loud noises which are sustained, but provides less protection against sudden, sharp noises. This reflex within the ears of children is much more efficient than in older people, which is one of the reasons why the elderly have less tolerance for loud music, as well as a greater chance for developing hearing loss.

The basilar membrane and organ of Corti

The hearing perception of the ear is concentrated in an area referred to as the basilar membrane. This membrane is found within the cochlea, which is itself a tube with a tapered shape. The basilar membrane splits the tube along its length into double canals which are filled with fluid. The two canals are tapered near their ends, and the ossicles send vibrations for the cochlea which are then connected to the oval window. The waves are then transmitted to the basilar membrane where they are detected by as much as twenty thousand hair cells called cilia which reach up from a canal called the organ of Corti.

The organ of Corti is responsible for transforming the hair cells which are stimulated into the nerve impulses. Because the cochlea utilizes a tapered design, this means that the waveforms which are sent to the basilar membrane increase in amplitude at various points based on their frequency. Increased frequencies will peak at shorter distances than frequencies which are lower.

Because the cochlea has a shape which is tapered, the distance between the pitches will use the same distance as the perception of pitch. The reason for this is because higher frequencies are capable of masking or even hiding lower frequencies.

There are a number of steps that should be taken to care for the ear health of your child. Hearing is one of the most important senses as it is responsible for the development of language, speech and communication skills. Below are some pediatric ear health tips that will ensure your child’s ears remain clean and healthy.

Cleaning the ears

Only the outer ear of the child should be cleaned. It should be wiped gently using either tissue or a washcloth. Nothing should be inserted into the ear, including cotton swabs, bobby pins or any sharp objects, as they can damage the eardrum and ear canal. It is important to understand that earwax is the substance that the ear uses to clean itself. If your child develops a collection of ear wax which prevents them from hearing, it should be removed with mineral oil.

A child that is experiencing aches or itching within their ears should be taken to a doctor. This way they can determine the proper treatment, and whether or not the child should visit a specialist. Rubbing alcohol can be used to clean the earrings and the earlobes of children who have pierced ears.

Sickness and medications

There are some ailments which interfere with a child’s ability to hear. A child that experiences hearing loss or who hears persistent noise in their ears should be taken to a doctor as soon as possible. Any leakage of fluid from the ear is abnormal, and is typically an indication of an infection. Some medications will interfere with a child’s ability to hear, and should only be administered as instructed. Additionally, parents should consult their pediatrician if their child is taking a medication which causes hearing issues.

Ear safety

Children should always wear a helmet whenever they are engaged in the following activities, as this protects both their head and ears:

  • Bicycling or skiing
  • Using a skateboard or rollerblading
  • Sports such as football or baseball
  • Martial arts or boxing

When your child swims, they should learn proper techniques that can protect their ears from damage as a result of a change in pressure. Special earplugs with filters can be worn during flights to balance air pressure within the ears.

General ear care

Parents should have their child’s ears inspected regularly. Their hearing should be evaluated by an audiologist, and whenever they are outdoors or at the beach, sunscreen should be applied to their ears (external ear only).

Parents should also watch for signs of hearing problems in their children. Some of these warning signs include difficulty understanding conversations, turning up the television louder than usual and difficulties in school. Parents should also monitor the noise levels within their home. Children shouldn’t be allowed to play music which is too noisy. This also goes for movies and video games. If you think the sound is too loud then that means it probably is. The ear buds which are used with devices like iPods or MP3 players will not protect your child’s hearing, that’s why sound should always be kept at a comfortable level.