Owner's Manual: Listen to Your Ears

You dress them up with hoops and studs, but don't let the love stop there.


Learn how to give your sensory wonders the protection they deserve.

The Vitals

15,000+: The number of tiny hairs, found deep inside your ears, that help you hear.

85+: Volume of noise in decibels that can cause hearing damage over time. (Kitchen blenders clock in at about that level.)

19: The percentage of adults ages 40 to 69 who have trouble hearing without a hearing aid.

How Your Ears Work

1. Sound waves are collected by the pinna (the outside, visible part of the ear) and guided down the ear canal to the eardrum, making it vibrate.

2. Vibrations from the eardrum move through three tiny middle-ear bones — the hammer, anvil, and stirrup — collectively known as the ossicles.

3. These sound vibrations cause fluids to move in the cochlea, a snail-shaped bony structure deep in the inner ear.

4. In turn, tiny hair cells in the cochlea are stimulated, sending electric signals through the auditory nerve to the brain, which immediately detects the difference between a cellphone ring and a symphony.

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When to Get Hearing Help

Do you dread restaurants and other noisy spots because you have to strain to catch the conversation? Don't be shy about telling your doctor, says Peter Weber, MD, director of the Ear Institute at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. Advances in technology have made the devices more discreet than ever. Although you can buy them online without a doc's sign-off, it's best to go through your physician. A checkup could reveal a more serious cause of hearing loss. Plus, when used incorrectly, hearing aids may actually worsen hearing because they often have an adjustable volume control, which can hurt your ears if set too high. Your doc can help you determine what setting is best.

Say What? These days, some people need hearing aids at a younger age, thanks to our high-decibel earbud habits and exposure to other loud noises.

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What's Up With Wax?

Your ears are self-cleaning wonders, and despite the ew factor, earwax deserves respect. It works with ear hairs to trap debris, dust, dirt, and other potentially harmful stuff while keeping the ear canal lubricated. Wax also chugs along, moving itself out of the ear canal on a regular basis without your help, which means those pointy cotton swabs really aren't necessary. In fact, they can push wax into the bony portion of the canal, which may lead to an infection (and, if you dig around in there, painful damage to your eardrum). To get rid of visible wax, use a small cloth and rub it with your pinky around the grooves of your outer ears.

Wax Control: For stubborn buildup, see your doctor. She may recommend a mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol.

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Turn It Down!

It's not just loud events — say, that Bon Jovi concert — that can cause trouble. Everyday noises like hair dryers, car horns, and the crowd at a ball game can lead to damage.

"Repeated exposure to high levels of sound is what hurts the ears, and once you have some hearing loss, you're more susceptible to future problems," says Douglas Backous, MD, medical director of the Center for Hearing and Skull Base Surgery at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle.

A good guide: If you have to raise your voice to be heard, the surrounding noise is too loud. If possible, close your ears with your fingers when you're exposed to truly deafening sounds, like a lawn mower or a siren, and listen to music with noise-canceling, over-the-ear headphones instead of earbuds. They may help block out any ambient hubbub so that your tunes don't need to blare.

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How Loud Is It?

Without hearing protection, 85 decibels of sound for eight hours or more of continuous exposure could cause hearing damage. (A 90-decibel sound is safe for two hours, 100 decibels for 15 minutes, and 120 decibels for just nine seconds.)

Download This! Want to know how loud your surroundings are? Download the free Decibel 10th Professional Noise Meter app for iPhone and Android.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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