How ears work + how to protect against hearing loss

Close-up of a woman's ear and hand through a torn hole in yellow paper.

Ears are rarely given much thought until you start having problems with their function. But there are things you can do to protect them and prevent hearing loss.

“Having healthy ears impacts so many parts of everyday life that taking care of them should be a high priority,” says Dr. Audrey Atkins, a medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “We often don’t realize that we make decisions every day that can have an impact on the health of our ears.”

How your ears work

Dr. Atkins: Your ears have three different sections that work in tandem to process sound:

  1. the outer ear
  2. the middle ear
  3. the inner ear

Together, they take sounds waves, convert them into electrical signals and carry the electrical signals to the brain.

Outer ear

The outer ear is the external part of the ear. Sound enters the auricle or pinna, which is the visible part of the ear on the side of your head. Then it travels through the external auditory canal. Eventually, sound waves reach the tympanic membrane, which separates the outer ear from the middle ear.

Middle ear

Also known as the tympanic cavity, the middle ear converts the sound waves into vibrations. When sound reaches the tympanic membrane, the membrane moves. This sets off vibrations in the three tiny bones, or ossicles, in the middle ear.

Fun fact: One of the bones of the ossicles – the stapes – is the smallest bone in your body.

Inner ear

Inside your inner ear is the cochlea. This is a small hollow spiral-shaped structure and three tiny semicircular canals. The cochlea converts the vibrations into electrical signals. The signals then travel along your auditory nerve, also known as the cochlear nerve, up to your brain.

Fun fact: The semicircular canals in your inner ear help you maintain your balance. They contain fluid and tiny patches of sensory hair cells with particles inside. These particles track the position of your head and the vestibular nerve carries balance information to your brain.

Where hearing loss comes from

Dr. Atkins: A common myth about hearing is that only old people have hearing loss. In reality, more than 14% of Americans over the age of 12 have hearing loss in both ears. Anyone can develop hearing loss. Some factors that contribute include genetics, a history of smoking, and certain health conditions.

A leading cause of hearing loss is sound exposure. This can happen from exposure to noise over time. It can also result from one single ear-rattling experience. For example, you can develop hearing loss from a lifetime attending rock concerts or from being near an explosion.

Eighty-five decibels is the limit for occupational noise exposure as recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Noise Source Average Sound Level Typical Response
Normal conversation 60 dB No hearing damage
Maximum volume for personal listening devices, televisions, rock concerts 105-110 dB Hearing loss possible after 5 minutes
Gas-powered lawnmower, leaf blower 80-85 dB Damage to hearing possible after 2 hours
Sirens nearby 120 dB Pain and ear injury
Motorcyle 95 dB Damage possible after 50 minutes

Source: CDC

Damage to your ear from loud noises can also cause tinnitus. This is a ringing or buzzing sound in your ears. Loud noises can also cause hyperacusis, which is increased sensitivity to sound.

Another reason to be mindful about hearing loss: research suggests that hearing impairment is a risk factor for dementia.

How to protect your hearing

Dr. Atkins: To guard against preventable hearing loss, you should be mindful of the volume on your televisions, video games, and portable music players. If you know you’re going to be exposed to loud noises, wear some sort of hearing protection.

You can buy foam earplugs that fit the ear canal. They are inexpensive, easy to find and effective. Another option is ear protection with an NRR (noise reduction rating) that often fairly matches the decibel level of your environment.

If you have a job or hobby where you will be consistently exposed to loud noises, such as hunting, music, jet engines or loud machinery, your best bet is custom ear protection that would have features to fit your specific situation as well as being custom fitted to your ear.

I recommend you choose a form of protection that is comfortable, easy to carry and that you are willing to wear consistently with loud noises.

How to care for your ears

Dr. Atkins: Keep the cotton swabs out of your ear canal. A cotton swab actually pushes earwax further into the canal and can cause an impaction. It could scratch the skin or even punch a hole in the eardrum. Your ears are actually self-cleaning, so you don’t need to try to dig out any wax down inside your ear, anyway.

Earwax isn’t a sign of uncleanliness. It’s actually a sign of normal, healthy ears. Earwax is protective, lubricating and can have antibacterial properties. If you feel like you have an unusual amount of wax in your ears, don’t use hydrogen peroxide in your ears to try to clear it out. It’s best to seek medical attention to make sure that it’s actually an impaction and not something else going on.

More tips for protecting your hearing from Dr. Atkins.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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