March 6, 2024/Ear, Nose & Throat

Take Good Care of Your Ears: Tips for Ear Hygiene and Hearing Protection

Care for your ears by steering clear of cotton swabs, taking precautions in loud settings and seeking medical help when needed

person adjusting ear bud in ear

Your ears are probably something you don’t give much thought to on a day-by-day basis. That is, until you get an ear infection. Or they start ringing. Or they start itching.

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And suddenly, your ears and your hearing jump to the top of your concerns.

“It’s natural to take our hearing and our ear health for granted,” says audiologist Julie Honaker, PhD. “But proactive ear care and hearing loss prevention can make a big difference in your well-being.”

That means cleaning your ears the right way. Using hearing protection properly. Preventing injury to your ears. And getting medical attention when you need it.

Dr. Honaker shares her top tips to properly care for your ears and save your hearing.

1. Clean your ears the right way

Proper ear hygiene is important. But it may not look like what you expect. 

For starters: Step. Away. From. The. Cotton. Swab.

Earwax isn’t dirty or unhealthy. In fact, it’s the opposite. Earwax helps ward off fungal infections and bacteria. And it helps keep out tiny particles that can cause damage to your eardrum. That includes things like dust and hair.

“It’s a common misperception to think you should be removing earwax regularly,” Dr. Honaker shares. “But the truth is that earwax is your body’s built-in system for cleaning your ears and a natural moisturizer.”

Dr. Honaker advises cleaning your ears only with a washcloth on your finger. No Q-tips®, bobby pins or sharp pointed objects. Those things can injure your ear canal and eardrum.

As for that ear candling method that claims to draw “impurities” and “toxins” from your ears? Also, steer clear.

Researchers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warn against the practice of ear candling, as it’s been shown to carry a high risk of burns and middle ear damage. Scientists in one study say, “The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good.”

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If you have a build-up of earwax that’s blocking your hearing or creating a muffled sound, see a healthcare provider to have it removed. Don’t try to remove it on your own.

If you have pierced ears, clean your earrings and earlobes regularly with rubbing alcohol.

2. Protect your ears from loud sounds

You know that ear ringing you get after walking out of a concert? It goes away eventually, but the reality is that ringing is a sign of hearing damage. And loud noises take a big toll on your hearing.

“Exposure to loud noises damages your inner ear and can lead to irreversible hearing loss,” Dr. Honaker says. “Even if you think your hearing has returned to normal after a loud event, the noises can still have done damage to the hair cells in your inner ear. And when enough of those hair cells are damaged, you can experience permanent hearing loss.”

So, protecting your hearing from loud sounds is important to maintaining your hearing for the rest of your life. In other words? Turn the volume down. Seriously, risking your hearing isn’t worth it.

Dr. Honaker shares these tips to protect your hearing:

  • Avoid loud volumes on your TV or home theater system. If you think it’s too loud, it probably is.
  • When using headphones or earbuds, keep the volume at a comfortable level. If someone else can hear what you’re listening to, the volume is too high. And take off the headphones from time to time to give your ears a rest.
  • Keep your car radio at sensible volumes. Not only can it help you avoid hearing damage, but it’ll also help keep you safe by allowing you to hear sirens and emergency vehicles. (And really, the cars around you don’t need to hear your jams.)
  • By law, you’re required to use hearing protection if you work in a noisy environment. If hearing protection is available at work, use it.
  • Protect your hearing from loud noises associated with housework and gardening. Wear hearing protection when you’re mowing the lawn, using a leaf blower or using power tools. You can find hearing protection devices at most drug stores, hardware stores, outdoors retailers and garden centers.
  • Wear earplugs at loud venues, like concerts, nightclubs and motor sporting events.

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3. Keep your ears safe from injury

Some activities can put your ears at risk for injury. Minimize your potential by:

  • Wearing a helmet when you bike, ski or participate in any other activity that puts you at risk for head and ear injuries.
  • Learning proper underwater techniques to avoid potentially damaging changes in pressure inside your ears when scuba diving.
  • Swallowing and yawning frequently when flying in an airplane, particularly when the plane is landing. That helps equalize pressure in your ears. Consider getting earplugs with special filters designed for air travel.
  • Always using sunscreen on your ears when outdoors, especially in sunny weather.

4. Recognize the signs of hearing loss

Getting prompt attention for changes in your hearing is important to preserving the hearing you have left. But too often, people don’t seek help until they’re experiencing more severe hearing loss.

“When hearing loss comes on gradually, people can easily overlook the signs that their hearing is deteriorating,” Dr. Honaker notes. “But it’s important to see a healthcare provider about hearing loss, as it can really affect your relationships and your satisfaction with your life. It can even put you at higher risk for dementia.”

Signs of hearing loss include:

  • Having difficulty keeping up with conversations, especially when there’s a lot of background noise.
  • Frequently asking others to repeat what they’ve said.
  • Answering others inappropriately because you didn’t understand what they were saying.
  • Agreeing, nodding your head or smiling during conversations when you aren’t sure what’s been said.
  • Feeling that people are mumbling or have marbles in their mouth when they talk.
  • Withdrawing from conversations and social situations because it’s too difficult to hear.
  • Reading lips so you can try to follow what people are saying.
  • Hearing sounds in your ears or head that others don’t hear. It’s called tinnitus, and may sound like a ringing, clicking, pulsing, humming or rushing.
  • Turning the television or radio volume up louder than others in the room prefer.
  • Having a hard time hearing environmental sounds, such as birds chirping.

Again, you may not even notice the beginnings of hearing loss. Others around you might notice it even before you do. If someone in your life suggests that you may be having trouble hearing, take them seriously. They may be on to something.

5. Seek medical help for ear concerns

Your ears and your hearing deserve your attention. After all, your hearing impacts your life and your well-being in big ways.

Some reasons to get medical attention for your ears include:

  • Earwax buildup.
  • Itching or pain in your ears.
  • Injuries to your head or ears.
  • Unusual bumps or scaly areas on the outside of your ear.
  • Drainage from your ear. (This is typically a sign of infection.)
  • Symptoms of hearing loss, like those mentioned.
  • Pain in your teeth, jaws or neck.

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Don’t hesitate to talk with a healthcare provider, like an audiologist, about ear troubles or hearing loss. They can examine you, advise you and help you get the treatment you need.

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Learn more about our editorial process.

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