Ear Health FAQs
Reviewed by John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
- The ear is home to the three smallest bones in the human body. Which one of these is NOT one of those three bones?
- What is the name for a doctor who specializes in medicine only related to the ear?
- What is the purpose of earwax?
- Doctors encourage "candling" as a way to remove excess earwax. True or False?
- What disorders are directly related to the inner ear?
- How can you treat tinnitus?
- How many kinds of ear infections are there?
- Swimmer's ear is highly contagious from person to person. True or False?
- Most ear infections occur in children younger than six years old. True or False?
- At what decibel level of sound does one begin to experience hearing loss?
- Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults. True or False?
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Q:The ear is home to the three smallest bones in the human body. Which one of these is NOT one of those three bones?
A:The three smallest bones in the body are located in the ear, and are called the malleus, incus, and stapes (commonly called the hammer, anvil, and stirrup because of their shapes). All together they are referred to as the "ossicles," and they help transmit sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.
The cochlea is not one of the bones of the inner ear, but rather a portion of the inner ear that converts sounds into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain.
Q:What is the name for a doctor who specializes in medicine only related to the ear?
A:An otologist is a doctor who specializes in medicine related to the ear. An otologist is a specialized type of otolaryngologist, which is a specialist in disorders of the ear, nose, and throat (also called an ENT).
Q:What is the purpose of earwax?
A:Earwax, also called cerumen, helps keep the ears healthy by lubricating the ear canals, cleaning out the ears, and trapping dirt and germs.
Q:Doctors encourage "candling" as a way to remove excess earwax. True or False?
A:Doctors do not recommend ear "candling," which involves lighting a long, hollow candle (typically made from cloth soaked in beeswax) on one end and placing the other end in the ear canal.
Not only is there no scientific evidence this helps any condition, it is dangerous and can lead to burns, blockages in the ear canal, or perforation of the tympanic membrane in the ear.
Ears are actually self-cleaning and doctors do not advise sticking anything inside the ear, including a cotton swab, because it could push wax further into the ear canal, or even rupture the eardrum. Keep ears clean by wiping the exterior with a soft cloth. If you experience problems with earwax buildup that affect your hearing, consult your doctor.
Q:What disorders are directly related to the inner ear?
A:Balance disorders that cause you to feel unstable or dizzy including Meniere's disease, vertigo, and labyrinthitis actually originate from the inner ear where the body's vestibular system is located.
This system has fluid-filled canals that sense movement. Balance disorders are often a result of vestibular system malfunctions.
Q:How can you treat tinnitus?
A:Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, can often be treated. If the tinnitus is due to earwax buildup, getting the ears cleaned by your doctor may relieve symptoms.
Sound generators such as white noise machines can help mask the ringing noises caused by tinnitus. In more serious cases of tinnitus, cochlear implants may be used to help reduce or mask tinnitus.
Q:How many kinds of ear infections are there?
A:There are three different types of ear infections:
1. Otitis media with effusion (OME), or "middle ear infection," is a buildup of fluid in the middle ear which may occur as a result of a cold or upper respiratory infection
2. Acute otitis media (AOM) occurs when otitis media fluid becomes infected
3. Otitis externa, also called "swimmer's ear," is inflammation of the ear canal
Q:Swimmer's ear is highly contagious from person to person. True or False?
Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is not highly contagious. When water gets into the ear canal, usually it easily drains out. Sometimes it can remain in the ear canal, giving bacteria a chance to grow and cause an infection. The infection is common in swimmers, but otitis externa can occur in people who have not been swimming.
Q:Most ear infections occur in children younger than six years old. True or False?
While anyone can get an ear infection, five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday. In fact, ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their child to the doctor.
If a child isn't old enough to tell you that they are hurting, here are some common signs and symptoms to look for:
- Tugging and pulling at the ears
- Fussiness and crying
- Trouble sleeping
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Clumsiness or problems with balance
- Trouble hearing or responding to quiet sounds
Q:At what decibel level of sound does one begin to experience hearing loss?
A:Hearing loss may occur when a person is exposed to sounds at or above 85 decibels for long or repeated periods of time.
Sounds of 75 decibels or less do not usually cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the time it would take for it to cause problems with hearing. Here is a comparison of the decibel levels of certain common sounds:
- 45 decibels – the humming of a refrigerator
- 60 decibels – normal conversation
- 85 decibels – noise from heavy city traffic (*repeated or prolonged exposure to this decibel level or higher can cause hearing loss)
- 95 decibels – motorcycles
- 105 decibels – mp3 player at maximum volume
- 120 decibels – sirens
- 150 decibels – firecrackers and firearms
Q:Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults. True or False?
Hearing loss is extremely common in older adults. About one third of adults between the ages of 65 and 74 in the U.S. has some hearing loss, and about half of those older than 75 have some difficulty hearing. Changes in the ear or along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain as we age are the most common cause of hearing decline in older adults. Some medical conditions or medications can also affect hearing.
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