5 Summertime Tips for Healthy Ears

Experts explain how to avoid ear problems that are triggered by everything from swimming to loud music.

From the WebMD Archives

Everyone has heard of swimmer's ear -- but there are other "ears" you don't want this summer, such as "music-lover's ear" and "unpressurized ear." Experts gave WebMD five tips for keeping your ears healthy -- over the summer and year-round.

No. 1: Don't Blast Your Inner Ear With Music

According to a Zogby International poll reported in March by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 28% of high-schoolers say they have to turn up the volume to hear the television. A similar number (29%) report saying "huh" or "what" a lot during conversations. A smaller, but significant number (17%) say they have experienced tinnitustinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

Other symptoms of hearing damage from personal entertainment devices include thinking that other people are speaking in a "muffled" way.

These are symptoms older people get, not kids. Until now.

The earbuds on MP3 players funnel the sound waves directly into the ear.

Long-term exposure to high volume levels can gradually wear out the tiny hair cells of the inner ear that convert sound into nerve signals that go to the brain.

Hearing loss can also be caused by age, disease, infections, drugs, trauma, and genetics. Or it can occur with sudden exposure -- or a very few exposures -- to severely loud sounds (like an explosion).

Occasionally music slamming into the ear from earbuds can be 100 decibels. "The rule of thumb," Bruce R. Maddern, MD, chair of the otolaryngology section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells WebMD, "is if an observer can hear the device, it's too loud."

"If it's that loud," Maddern adds, "you also can't hear a car coming at you."

Hearing loss from noise usually accumulates over time and does not happen all at once.

Richard M. Rosenfeld, MD, professor of otolaryngology at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., offers the following advice:

  • Take breaks if you must listen to music through earbuds. "An iPod at 60 is safe for an hour a day," he says.
  • Check out noise-reducing headphones. That way, you don't have to crank up the music volume to cancel out party noise or beach shouts.
  • Don't stand or sit right next to a speaker at a party or concert.
  • Parents should note: Do not let your child fall asleep with earbuds in. Make sure their devices are set at 60 or lower.

Incidentally, 60 decibels is the level of normal conversation. A power lawn mower can generate 90 decibels, a chainsaw or rock concert 110-140, and a 12-gauge shotgun 165 decibels.

Continued

No. 2: Don't Go Overboard Cleaning Your Ears

Earwax may look unsightly, but it is designed to protect the ear. When it migrates to the outside, you can clean it off with a washcloth.

"Every package of [swabs] says not to insert into the ear!" cautions Rosenfeld. "Sticking something in your ear canal to get out wax can push the wax farther in and compact it."

If your ear is impacted with ear wax, see your doctor who can safely clear it out for you.

No. 3: How to Treat Swimmer's Ear

Maddern says you might want to make sure your child's ears are not packed with wax and debris before the summer-long pool dunking starts. "If there is a lot of stuff down there and it is not addressed and warmth and bacteria-filled water is added," he says, "swimmer's ear can result."

Swimmer's ear is caused by any number of common bacteria found in lakes, hot tubs, and pools. In many cases, the infection gets going from a trauma in the ear canal – possibly a nick or scratch.

Swimmer's ear starts out as itching and maybe some soreness inside the ear but soon becomes severely painful and swollen, especially if you press on the little flap next to the ear opening.

"The doctor," Rosenfeld says, "may clean everything out. If the ear is swollen shut at this point, he or she may also put in a wick, which is a cellulose sponge that will carry the prescription drops to the infection."

Rosenfeld does not recommend that you use earplugs in the pool, however. "These can also cause trauma in the ear canal," he points out.

People who wear hearing aids are especially prone to swimmer's ear, according to Rosenfeld. "If you get a case, leave out the hearing aids for awhile," he advises.

No. 4: Pierce Only in the Lobe

Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, is co-director of laser surgery at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, and teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

She tells WebMD that she worries about people neglecting to put sunblock on their ears. "The ears are very sensitive to sun," she exclaims. "Don't forget them."

Continued

Tanzi says she sees a fair amount of skin cancer on the top of the ear. It starts out as a red, flaky patch and can bleed easily if scratched. Consult a doctor if this occurs.

As for insect repellent, it's OK to put it on the outer ear. Never spray inside.

As for piercing, Tanzi recommends sticking with the lobe area, which has a good blood supply to fight infection. Piercing up the curve goes into cartilage, which has a shortage of blood and where a serious infection can get going and not leave. "It can be very difficult to clear those," Tanzi says.

Take care of newly pierced ears as instructed. Wash your hands before handling the area. Then soak a cotton ball in alcohol and smoosh it around over the earring and post several times a day. If the lobe starts to get hot or itchy (hours or days after the piercing), you may have an infection. If this cannot be stopped with antibiotic cream, you may need to let the hole close.

As for earrings, if you have a contact allergy to nickel, which is common, stick with gold or stainless steel posts or hooks. Tanzi says that commercial coatings for ear wires designed to keep the nickel away from the skin don't work well for the severely allergic.

No. 5: Plane-Proof Your Ears

The next time you start to deplane, and babies and toddlers start screaming, this is a good thing! "Not equalizing pressure in the ears on planes is called barotitis," explains Rosenfeld. "This is not a problem when taking off, but it is when landing. Such a severe vacuum situation may be set up in the ears that a traveler may have severe pain, bleeding, or even perforation [of the eardrum].

"You want to chew, yawn, swallow -- anything to move the pressure around when landing," he adds. "If you have problems with this you can even take an oral decongestant before leaving."

Children can be especially susceptible. "Don't let your child remain asleep during landings," Rosenfeld says. "If they cry at the landing -- that is a good thing. It is equalizing pressure."

"A pacifier can also help kids with this," Maddern says. "Or give them some water to sip." Chewing gum is not recommended for toddlers, much less infants.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 02, 2007

Sources

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

SOURCES: Bruce R. Maddern, MD, chair, otolaryngology section, American Academy of Pediatrics. Richard M. Rosenfeld, MD, professor of otolaryngology, Long Island College Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y. Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, co-director of laser surgery, Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, Washington. Bland, K. Arizona Republic, April 10, 2006: "Headphones stir hearing-loss worries." American Speech-Language-Hearing Association web site.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pagination