Ears, like all other organs of your body, require proper attention and care to function. Your ears are also linked to different parts of your body and when they function well, so do other parts of the body. Ears are incredibly delicate, and any injury near or on the ear can damage your hearing ability. If you have wax build-up or an outer ear infection, you should seek medical help.
Anatomy and structures of the Ear and Related Structures
In order to understand what happens when an ear gets infected, it is helpful to have a basic idea of the structure and function of the ear. This complex and delicate organ is composed of the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer and middle ears function to conduct sound waves through the ear. The inner ear receives these auditory waves, transforms them into electrical signals, and relays them to the brain. The inner ear is also an important organ of equilibrium, or balance.
- Outer Ear: The outer ear consists of the visible projecting flap of tissue and cartilage called the auricle or pinna, and the ear canal (external auditory meatus). The outer ear canal leads to a thin, translucent membrane the eardrum (tympanic membrane), which senses vibrations created by sound.
- Middle Ear: Behind the eardrum is the middle ear, an air-filled cavity that contains a bridge of three tiny bones (ossicles) with the whimsical names anvil (malleus), hammer (incus), and stirrup (stapes). These bones which are the smallest in the human body are covered with a glistening membrane that constantly produces mucus. As the eardrum vibrates it moves the three bones, which then transmit the vibrations to nerves in the inner ear through a second thin membrane covering an area called the oval window.
- Inner Ear: The inner ear (labyrinth) is a coil or snail like chamber with three sections. The central and upper sections of the inner ear contain the body’s balance mechanisms (the semicircular canals). The lower section is a bony, snail-shaped structure called the cochlea. The cochlea has three compartments filled with special auditory liquids (perilymph and endolymph) that transmit vibrations received from the middle ear. The middle and smallest of these compartments contains the tiny auditory receptor called the organ of Corti. In this organ, tiny receptor cells (called hair cells) receive vibrations from the auditory liquids and relay the sound waves to auditory nerve fibers, which extend from the inner ear to the hearing center of the brain. These fibers transform the sound waves to electrical signals that are received and interpreted (“heard”) by the brain. In this fascinating process, the brain can eventually distinguish over 400,000 sounds.
An additional structure that affects the middle ear and plays a major role in ear infections is the passageway that connects the middle ear to the nasal cavity and the throat. This passageway, called the Eustachian tube, is more rigid closer to the ear and more pliant toward the back of the throat. The flexible end is normally closed at rest but opens very briefly upon swallowing or yawning. When the tube opens, air enters the canal and travels to the middle ear. The Eustachian tube has three roles in regard to the middle ear:
- Ventilation: The tube allows extra air to enter or leave the middle ear in order to keep the air pressure inside the ear roughly equivalent to the air pressure in the external canal. This function is most apparent when there are sudden changes in the outside air pressure, such as during travel through an underground tunnel or when taking off or landing in an airplane. If there were no such valve, rapid changes in middle ear pressure could cause the eardrum to rupture.
- Drainage: The tube prevents buildup of normal mucus secretions in the middle ear by opening periodically to allow the excess fluid to drain to the back of the throat.
- Protection: The tube provides partial protect ion from foreign substances that may be blown into the nose or throat region during sniffing, sneezing, or coughing; when the tube is closed at rest, it provides this protection.
Proper functioning of the eustachian tube helps to prevent damage to the eardrum and the middle and inner ears. Inefficient functioning can lead to ear infection.
Adenoids and Tonsils
Adenoids and tonsils are part of the body’s lymphatic system, a network of vessels, nodes, tissue, and glands that plays a large role in defending the body against infectious agents. Lymph, a clear, watery fluid derived from blood, flows through this system. Special lymph cells lymphocytes) that originate in masses of lymph tissue (lymph nodes) protect the body from infection by producing antibodies or by engulfing and destroying foreign matter. Lymph nodes are concentrated in the throat, neck, chest region, armpits, and groin. The tonsils are masses of lymphatic tissue located in the throat near the back of the mouth. The adenoids are masses of lymphatic tissue farther up the throat near the back of the nasal cavity and cannot be seen through the mouth because they are hidden behind the soft palate (the rear, fleshy part of the roof of the mouth). During childhood the tonsils and adenoids work overtime, fighting off infections in the mouth, nose, and throat regions. As a result, they can become infected and swollen. The infection may travel to the middle ear. The adenoids can also swell up and block the eustachian tube. Moreover, when the tonsils or adenoids work overtime and become larger, they may work less and less effectively and become totally useless in the fight against infections.
This guide is here to help you in caring properly for your ear.
1. Lower the volume
Your ears are sensitive and can get easily damaged over above usual sound level. You would not want your eardrums to get damage just because you like listening to music by blasting it on full volume. The volume should be kept at 60% maximum when you are listening via headphones or earbuds. Earbuds are much closer to your eardrum and are prone to cause damage than headphones that cover the ear. If others can hear what you are listening through your earphones, the sound is probably too loud for your ears.
Since your ears are connected with other parts of the body and nerves, doing exercise can help keep your ears healthy as well. Exercise causes more blood flow in the body which is great for your ear.
3. Check Stress levels
Just like physical health, your mental health is also linked to your other parts of the body, most importantly your ear. High stress levels can put you in fight and flight mode and may impact your nervous system as well as the blood flow. This can cause greater pressure to your ear and may affect your hearing.
4. Keep volumes low where people do not have to shout
An important tip to understanding how loud or low sound should be is to check if there is music being played through loudspeakers in a room; do the people there have to shout at each other to be heard? If so, you need to lower the volume to a comfortable level of hearing rather than one where people have to shout to each other. This also puts extra strain on your vocal cords, your ears, and the rest of your body parts connected with it.
5. Give your ears rest
Your ears are your best friend. They help you listen to other people, hear music, and enjoy movies. Your ears do a lot of work for you and are pretty low maintenance too, but they require rest too. Use earphones or headphones for 60 minutes straight maximum, and then give your ears rest. They are likely to start causing pain if there is a device attached to them constantly.
6. Keep ears dry
When you come out of the shower or if your body has been exposed to water like in a swimming pool or scuba diving, make sure you gently dry your ears. Leaving your ears to stay wet for more extended periods can expose them to bacteria and infection that is harmful to your hearing.
7. Do not use cotton swabs or pointed objects
Whenever there is extra wax in their ear, most people think they should clean it out themselves using a cotton swab, bobby pins, or worse, their fingers. Neither of these options is worth trying or recommended. Any pointed object or anything that goes in your ear can damage your eardrum. Your ear cleans itself, and the wax is there to protect it from any bacteria or infection.
8. Give time to recover
If you know that you will be exposed to loud noises for an extended period, take some time out, like 5 to 10 minutes, to go outside or far from the noise. Let’s say you are at a party or a concert and you do not have much control over the volume, you should take timeouts from there to let your ear recover and return to its normal hearing.
9. Consult your doctor
If you feel any slight pain or trouble in hearing, you should see your doctor to help you. You should not rely on self-diagnosis or self-treatment.
10. Regular checkups
Whether it is for getting your ears clean or caring for them, you need to ensure you are regular with checkups apart from emergencies as well.