Hearing is something most of us take for granted until there is a problem.
I’ll start with the basics of keeping your ears clean. Be careful when cleaning your ears; wipe the outer ear with a washcloth or a soft tissue. For pierced ears, clean your earrings and earlobes occasionally with rubbing alcohol. Never put anything into your ear. Ever. It’s far too easy to accidentally injure your ear canal or eardrum. Your ears are essentially self-cleaning if left alone. The skin of the ear canal grows toward the outside carrying wax out with it.
Lots of folks try to get the wax out with a cotton swab and just manage to pack it deeper in the canal. If you feel like you have a lot of earwax that is making it difficult to hear, I recommend that you see your doctor to have it removed.
Sometimes illness affects your hearing. That muffled hearing sensation you sometimes get when you have a cold typically resolves itself as you get over the cold. It’s from congestion in the eustachian tubes that move air from behind your nose to the middle ear. When those get blocked the air in the middle ear decreases and the eardrum is pushed in by the higher air pressure outside the ear. It is fine to plug your nose and blow to try to push air back into the middle ear. That will also help fluid that can collect from a cold to reabsorb. This “popping” of your eardrums also helps relieve the pain and pressure when descending in an airplane, coming down off of a mountain, and even with scuba diving.
If you have continuous aching in your ear while you have a cold you may have an ear infection. Most ear infections get better on their own. If it persists for more than four to five days or you have blood or pus draining from your ear you should see your doctor.
Sudden hearing loss or a constant noise in your ears or head are not normal and should be checked out by your health care provider as well. If you experience a sudden change in hearing, you should contact your health care provider right away.
Summer is almost here and some of us will be spending a lot of time swimming. That persistent water exposure can cause swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal. You can buy an ear solution like Swim Ear to put in your ears after swimming. It dries and acidifies the canal making the environment hostile to the bacteria that cause this kind of infection. I make my own with a 1 to 1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar.
Part of caring for your ears and hearing is protecting them from damaging noise levels. Noisy workplaces are required by law to provide you with hearing protection. If you work in a noisy environment use hearing protection. You should protect your hearing outside of work too. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, power tools, vacuum cleaners, and even kitchen blenders can be quite hard on your hearing and I recommend wearing hearing protection when you are using them too. I also recommend earplugs for loud concerts, nightclubs, and motor sporting events. Keep the volume down on those earbuds too. Chronic noise exposure is the primary cause of hearing loss.
Lastly, if you do come to a point where you need hearing aids, get them. They are not your grandfather’s hearing aids anymore. They are pretty amazing.
Protect your hearing now and you won’t miss out in the future either.
Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.