What Can I Do to Protect My Ears?
Expert Advice from Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
Many everyday sounds can cause ear damage, and people may unknowingly expose their ears to damaging levels
In addition to the everyday ear infections many of us remember from childhood, you may be surprised to learn that many people unknowingly expose their ears to everyday sounds that are loud enough to contribute to hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Consider these simple steps to safeguard your hearing and keep your ears in tip-top shape.
Know the hazards
- Sound levels: Sound levels are measured in decibels (dBA), and the allowable workplace noise limits are determined by the length of time a person is expected to be exposed to the sound (the louder the noise, the less time a person is allowed to be exposed): for an eight-hour work day, the level is no more than 90 dBA. At 92 decibels, the exposure limit is six hours, at 95 decibels, the limit is four hours, at 100 the limit is 2 hours, and at 115 dBA, the limit is just 15 minutes. At home, keep in mind that power lawn tools, such as lawnmowers and leaf blowers can exceed 95 dBA, while garbage disposals and food blenders can top 90 dBA.
- Infection: If you or your child has an earache or diminished hearing for more than a day, you may have an ear infection. Talk to your doctor right away, as some ear infections will resolve on their own, but others require treatment and carry further risks.
- “Don’t stick anything smaller than an elbow in your ear”: The old saying holds some weight, as internal ear parts are delicate and easily damaged. Do not stick small objects into your ear canal—even cotton tipped swabs, ear “candles,” and other wax removal products. Earwax protects against infection and damage, and healthy ear canals generally do not require cleaning. If you have a condition that causes excessive earwax build up, such as infections or connective tissue disease, talk to your doctor about how to safely clean your ear canals. Do not attempt to clean inside your ears yourself.
- Ultraviolet rays: Most people forget their ears when applying sunscreen, making the outside of the ears a common place for people to develop skin cancer.
Use the right tools
- Purchase small foam ear plugs in bulk, and stock your car glove box, your purse, your brief case, your desk, your gym bag, and your “junk drawer” with several pairs. Use ear plugs at concerts, loud bars and restaurants, parades, and fireworks displays.
- Invest in a good pair of ear muffs for use with lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and other power tools. Ear muffs have soft, sound-dampening material in a hard outer cup held together with a head band. They fit around the entire ear, and provide the highest level of hearing protection.
- Excessive noise exposure from listening to music through ear buds and earphones is expected to lead to high rates of hearing loss in younger generations, so watch your levels and encourage your kids to keep it down.
- Buy a good "broad-spectrum" sunblock and remember to include your ears when you're lotioning up.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.