It’s easy to take your ears—and hearing—for granted. But don’t wait until you have a problem to begin paying attention to your ears. Take care of them now. Proper ear care promotes good ear health. It can prevent ear infections. It can even help prevent hearing loss.
Path to improved health
The first step toward a healthy ear is a clean ear. Do not mistake a clean ear for a wax-free ear. Your ear is designed to have some wax in it. This wax stops dust and other possibly harmful things from entering your ear.
Keeping your ears clean involves cleaning the outer portion of your ears. You should never stick a cotton swab in your ear to remove earwax. Doing so doesn’t really remove the wax. All it does is compact the wax closer to your eardrum. Earwax should not be close to your eardrum. This can cause a blockage, which is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.
If you feel you have a buildup of wax in your ear, you may try to soften wax. You can do this by placing a few drops of mineral oil in your ear. If you do not have mineral oil, you can use baby oil or glycerin. If this doesn’t work, you should see an ear care professional.
To clean your outer ear, simply use water, a gentle soap, and a washcloth. You can also use a cotton swab to run in the curves of your upper ear—just do not stick them in your ear canal. Use the washcloth to wipe above and behind your ear.
If you have ear piercings, you should clean them regularly with rubbing alcohol. You should also routinely clean your earrings with rubbing alcohol. This helps protect against possible infection.
You can also get infections in your ear canal. Moisture in the ear canal can promote bacteria to grow there. One of the most common infections is swimmer’s ear. The best way to protect against these infections is by keeping your ears dry. After showering or swimming, use a towel to dry your ears.
Keep noise down
Loud noises can damage the tiny bones in your ear, causing hearing loss. This noise-induced hearing loss can happen in an instant. Or it can occur over time.
If you are exposed consistently loud noise, you should wear hearing protectors. These can be earplugs, over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones, or other hearing protection devices. Know that the longer loud noises last, the more likely they are to damage your hearing. And loud bursts at a high volume are even more dangerous to hearing. So you should use hearing protection whether you are at a loud concert or at a shooting range or fireworks display.
Listening to music too loudly on a personal music device can also cause hearing loss. Whether you are using ear buds or over-the-ear headphones, playing music at a loud volume can seriously degrade hearing.
To protect your hearing, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting the time and volume for listening through headphones. According to WHO, you should use them no more than one hour a day. And the volume should be no more than 60%. WHO also suggests using noise-canceling headphones. These may help you resist the urge to turn up the music.
There are some loud environments where hearing protection is not practical, such as a noisy bar or sporting event. If you spend time in these environments, you should try to rest your ears as much as you can. Ear experts recommend that your ears will need about 16 hours of quiet to recover from a single noisy night out.
Things to consider
Even if you are taking care of you ears and limiting noise exposure, you could be putting your hearing at risk. There are certain medicines that have been linked to hearing loss. The loss can be progressive or sudden. It also can begin as a ringing in your ears (tinnitus). You also may notice feeling off-balance.
It is important to take medicines exactly as they are prescribed. This is true even for over-the-counter medicines. Something as common as aspirin (one brand: Bayer) or ibuprofen (one brand: Advil) can contribute to hearing loss.
When to see a doctor
Most school-aged children have a hearing screening every year at school. Adults who do not have hearing loss or other ear problems can go longer. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends that adults be screened at least every 10 years through age 50. After that, you should have your hearing screening every 3-5 years.
If you suspect you have hearing loss, you should see your doctor. There are many types of hearing loss and many causes of hearing loss. Some hearing loss is permanent and some hearing loss is temporary. If you can’t hear as well on the phone or in noisy situations, you should have your hearing tested.
Questions for your doctor
- Am I taking any medications that could harm my hearing?
- Should I worry that taking aspirin or ibuprofen could damage my hearing?
- Sometimes I have ringing in my ears. Is this normal?
- Hearing loss runs in my family. Should I be worried?
- What could be causing my hearing loss?
- What tests do you recommend?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.