How to Protect Your Ears

Our passion is also a health hazard if not done in the right way. Our hearing is one of our most precious assets to enjoying our hobby and our life around us. Our members have though very kindly put up their 2 cents worth on how to enjoy the gentle art of headphoning without damaging your ears. You are of course quite free to continue the debate in the comments section below.

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.

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.

Perforated Eardrums

If you feel a sudden, sharp pain in your ear after a traumatic event, such as an explosion or a diving accident, you may have a perforated eardrum. See your doctor immediately. Even if the pain occurs only at the time of the accident and then stops, you may have some type of middle-ear damage. A small perforation of the eardrum heals itself within a few weeks if infections are kept at bay. A large perforation may require surgery.

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.

Decibel Levels

Here are decibel levels of some common everyday sounds:

Jet engine (at 100 feet): 130
Jackhammer: 120
Rock concert: 100
Truck (at 16 feet): 90
Vacuum cleaner: 75
Noisy restaurant: 70
Normal conversation: 60
Interior of typical urban home: 50
Suburban street without traffic: 40
Whisper: 30
Rustle of leaves: 10

Preventing Ear Problems

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.

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.

People with diabetes can develop a particularly severe form of otitis externa called malignant otitis externa. These patients need to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Regular Maintenance

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.

If you work in a noisy environment, have your ears examined at least annually. Children also should have their ears checked regularly, especially young children who may not be able to verbalize any discomfort they’re feeling. Testing of infants is also crucial; otherwise problems may not be discovered until the child fails to learn to talk.

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.

Ear Disorders

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.

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.

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

When to see a Doctor About Tinnitus

Ringing in the ears can relate to a more serious medical condition, such as:

* extremely high levels of triglycerides in your blood

* stroke or transient ischemic attack (if accompanied by slurred speech, numbness in the face or extremities, or vision changes)

* Meniere disease, an inner-ear disorder (if accompanied by severe dizziness and fluctuating hearing loss)

* acoustic neuroma, a tumor of the ear nerve

So, if the ringing in your ears doesn’t seem to have an obvious cause and lasts for more than a day, set up an appointment with your doctor.

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 cause 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.

So there you have it. I am no doctor and this should be taken for what it is and not a definitive medical opinion but it makes sense to me and to our members. Anything further to suggest feel free to add!

About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • Azor Ruiz

    very informative article bro marcus. now i understand ultrasone’s ule technology and s-logic better.

    hope for an article of taking care of our gears next.

  • Anonymous

    Actually I think it was another forum member who pulled it all together but happy to post it for the benefit of our readers since we often forget about this aspect of our hobby. I think we can muster something up on gear maintenance in the future 🙂

  • rj_md

    very nice marcus, definitely a lot of things to consider when listening to our gear. thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Anonymous

      I have to say at times we definitely abuse our ears for the cause and I am just glad i was not into headphones from such an early age or else it would be curtains for me now.