Listening to loud music, driving up a mountain, sticking a Q-tip deep into your ear — these are just a few ways that everyday situations impact your most delicate organs.
Your ears may be small and easy to forget about, but that doesn’t mean you should not pay attention to them — or simply refuse to listen to what they are trying to tell you. We don’t normally think about our ears on a daily basis because they’re “out of sight, out of mind.” Like teeth, we only think about our ears when we’re already two days deep into a problem.
And, by then, it’s often too late to really do anything about the issue except address the symptoms at hand. But protecting your ears from these risks should be just as important as protecting your eyes from dirt and debris.
Luckily, our eyeballs have lids and eyelashes — guardians that act as a first line of defense. Our ears have none of these luxuries and rely on our good sense to protect them from external pressure as well as internal inflammation.
Rain or Shine, Keep Your Ears Fine
Let’s start by saying that the human body was not created to handle extreme conditions. Scorching heat or the freezing cold can negatively affect the body in more ways than just a nip on the nose or chilly ear lobes.
Prolonged and consistent exposure to extreme cold temperatures can increase your risk of developing hearing loss earlier in life. If you’re into extreme sports such as skiing and snowboarding, goggles and hats with flaps are your friend.
The mixture of cold weather and high wind speeds can cause a condition called surfer’s ear (also known as exostosis), which is an abnormal bone growth within the ear canal. This growth blocks the inner ear passage and greatly reduces hearing. It can also cause water to get trapped more frequently within the ear, leading to a higher chance of infection.
Cold and damp wind is mainly responsible for the internal abnormal growth. Meanwhile, extreme heat can cause the sensation of “burning ears,” though this is usually an external issue. Extreme heat may cause fatigue that is directly related to your ear lobes feeling very hot, or a breakout with a rash that might present itself in the moment the body feels stress or trauma.
Of course, our ears are also susceptible to sunburn. This is especially true when we’re at the beach, because most of us spend more time applying sunscreen to our faces and body than our ears. So, remember your ears when you’re in the sun and wear a hat — doing so will protect your ears from overheating and reduce the risk of sunburn.
Your Surroundings Matter
Besides the weather, there are plenty of other risks to your faculty of hearing and ears in general.
Often, these risks include prolonged exposure to noise, natural aging, the risk of bacterial or viral infections, and the use of ototoxic drugs. The way these factors interact can actually increase the risk of hearing loss.
For example, common medicinal culprits of hearing loss include: aspirin taken in large doses, loop diuretics meant to treat high blood pressure and heart failure, chemotherapy and other medications used to combat cancerous tumors.
Those who take more than two different kinds of medications all at once (to treat simultaneous conditions, for example) are at an even higher risk. Symptoms usually start with tinnitus and vertigo.
Constant and consistent noise pollution can strain our tensor tympani muscle, which is responsible for dampening loud noises, as well as the tympanic membrane or ear drum. When it is strained, just thinking of loud noises can cause the individual to feel something like a pulling sensation or even a tenderness within their ears.
But it’s not just noise levels that affect our ears and ability to hear. It’s also the number of “impulses” with those high-level acoustics. These impulses — usually sudden, loud, and consistent bursts of noise — are quite common at concerts. Some instruments, such as drums and the amps that enhance bass, deliver these impulses. High-level acoustic impulses are exactly what ear muffs at concerts are built to protect our ears from.
Even if the music is at a steady state, some acoustic impulses can interact with certain steady-state noises and produce further injuries within the inner ear.
Out of the Ordinary
Many of us work a typical 9 to 5 job in a cubicle. But what about those of us in trades and industries that require us to be outdoors or in conditions that put our hearing at risk?
There are plenty of work situations that don’t fit the norm. This means workers are at a greater risk for developing hearing loss sooner or experiencing short term discomfort.
For example, construction workers, land and real estate developers, site supervisors, and tradesmen are all at risk for developing hearing loss. Because their workday involves being around heavy machinery, passing cars, or construction sites, the chances of experiencing noise-induced loss are very high.
These environments can strain one’s hearing and reduce one’s quality of life. Take into consideration that individuals working in these industries also often work in extreme heat or cold conditions.
While bundling up is certainly one option, the added clothing constricts the movement of workers so that they’re not really able to move freely. While ear muffs and helmets are a safety rule imposed by the company, long-term hearing may be affected by these small, everyday compensations.
Diving instructors and flight and cabin crew are also at a higher risk of developing ear issues that go far beyond simple ear pressure that can be “popped” by yawning. The sudden drop or rise in altitude can have a long-term effect on the inner ear tube.
Divers are susceptible to their inner ear getting clogged with water or even developing cysts in the inner ear that can cause pressure. In other cases, inflammation leading to a full-blown infection can occur if the ears are not drained immediately or treated with antibiotics.
Exposure to foreign bodies in unclean water can affect the brain-blood barrier since the structures within the ear are intricately connected to the rest of the head and neck, including the bones that protect the brain.
Hear Today…Gone Tomorrow?
Age-related hearing loss is an extremely common condition that affects many elderly adults. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that around one in three people, aged 65-74, in the United States alone, is affected with hearing loss.
Loss is usually gradual, which means that most people simply learn to adjust to their hearing situation. In fact, you may not even realize that your hearing is not as sharp as it used to be. A loss in hearing can affect more than simple daily communication. It can affect the ability to hear alarm sounds or even lead to a sense of isolation if it’s hard to keep in touch with family and friends over the phone.
It is true that individuals who have spent the majority of their lives around loud sounds are more likely to develop hearing loss. However, hearing loss is also related to other health issues — diabetes and high blood pressure are common purveyors of this secondary condition.
Sometimes, hearing loss can be psychogenic or can result from changes along the nerve pathways that connect the ear to the brain. This means that sensation, not necessarily function, is at stake.
Hearing Troubles? Listen Up!
If you’re experiencing hearing loss, there’s a step-by-step process you’ll need to go through.
First, you need to determine the cause: is it a secondary symptom? A mild and temporary side effect from medication? Or is it something that is progressively getting worse?
Hearing loss can slowly creep up on you. Pressure in the inner ear tube, strain, or a ringing sensation doesn’t always seem that serious — even if accompanied by vertigo.
And, usually, it isn’t that serious. Your decision to seek professional help or not should be based on:
- Your age
- An account of activities that might be the cause of this (just a weekend out at a concert or a waterlogged ear that simply won’t clear?)
- Whether it’s accompanied by any other physical symptoms like a fever
- How long the pain/pressure persists and how often it returns
The ears are both strong and delicate at the same time: which is to say, for the most common issues like ringing in the ear and inner ear tenderness (especially when it relates to a stuffy sinus), the ears can get better on their own.
But, in cases of impacted earwax, abnormal bone growth, or a painful cyst that needs to be drained, professional help should be the first response.
Other than that, there are several things you can do to relieve ear pressure or mild discomfort:
- Keep your room moist with the use of an air humidifier and use a neti pot to clear your sinuses; if you’re using a nasal spray, don’t use it for more than 3 consecutive days.
- When scuba diving or driving up a mountain, descend and ascend gradually, rather than suddenly and all at once. This will give your ears time to adjust to the change in pressure.
- Use white noise headphones or noise cancelling headphones to soothe ears after a loud commotion or concert.
- If you’re on medication for diabetes, kidney issues, or high blood pressure, make sure to address your concern about ototoxic medications with your doctor and try to find a remedy that does not have these side effects.
Hearing is one of our five senses that helps us feel more connected to our world and the people in it. Hearing allows us to enjoy the simple yet profound pleasures of a musical experience, communicate our needs, listen for and react to danger, and sense a change in the environment. Ears and the delicate equilibrium the inner ear maintains is also responsible for our sense of balance and center of gravity.
Our ears play an integral role in our lives, so make sure to protect them at all times. Your ears will thank you for it.