History tells us Voltaire called the ear “the road to the heart.” Consider how deeply we’re affected by the sound of someone laughing, crying out for help or whispering softly and sweetly.
The human ear not only detects sound but aids in body balance and position. Divided into the outer, middle, and inner ear, each component has a job to do. Bombarded as we are with noise like loud music, lawn mowers, and concerts and movie theaters that amp up the sound, there are steps we can take in our daily lives to help ensure we don’t compromise or lose this precious sense.
An explosion can cause immediate hearing loss, often total deafness. And while that scenario is rare, statistics tell us about 60 percent of college freshmen already display some degree of hearing loss – generally from repeated exposure to loud music. Loud noise causes hearing loss by damaging the inner ear’s miniscule, sensitive hair cells. Damage is attributed to two factors: decibels and duration. If you work in an environment where you cannot hear someone who is talking to you from two feet away, sources say your hearing is being damaged and it is best to use protective gear such as acoustic earplugs, phones or muffs. Tinnitus, incessant ringing in the ears, can result from acoustical trauma (the aforementioned loud noise), as well as infection, certain medications, high blood pressure or earwax buildup (to name a few possible causes). It’s best to see your doctor if ringing in your ears persists.
And interestingly, according to sources, during cardio exercise, blood diverts from the ears to the legs, arms, and heart, rendering the ears’ hair cells more susceptible to damage. If you’re wearing headphones or ear buds at this time, your potential for hearing loss is doubled because you cannot gauge how loud the music really is.
With summer upon us, otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, is a not-so-uncommon but usually preventable affliction. Bacteria or a fungus nestles into an outer ear canal, which is appropriately moist and warm. Water babies (and adults) who spend little time on land (we know who we are!) more often experience swimmer’s ear, as all that water washes away the oily, waxy substance that typically lines and protects the canal from intruders. But experts tell us water left in from a shower, or scratching the ear canal’s delicate skin with a bobby pin or cotton swab, can also open the door to bacteria. Defend yourself by shaking water out after a swim or shower, taking care not to swim in water that appears dirty, and using antiseptic ear drops if you swim a lot.
When the Eustachian tube, which connects the inside back portion of the nose with the inner ear, is blocked, during illness or on a flight, it is unable to resupply air during swallowing. Pressure cannot be equalized and pain results. In fact the eardrum is sucked inward and stretched taut. If the condition persists, the eardrum can become inflamed and if it goes unchecked, can lead to hearing loss.
Severe dizziness or vertigo can result from an inner ear infection. The Labyrinth (a group of fluid-filled inner chambers) controls balance, and people often report the room feels as though it’s spinning if they have this condition. It can also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Best not to allow the condition to persist and see your doctor.
Contrary to popular thought, many medical professionals recommend leaving earwax in to trap foreign particles that may enter the ear. Cotton swabs can push wax deeper into the ear canal and up against the eardrum, where it will mitigate hearing. They can also poke a hole in the eardrum. Moving the jaw through everyday tasks such as eating and talking can push wax to the outer ear, where it can be wiped away by a damp (not saturated, so that water runs into the canal) tissue or cotton ball. Should wax become impacted, contact your health care professional. S/he may recommend over-the-counter ear wax softening drops to begin with.