With summer just around the corner, I know I’m going to start seeing a lot more patients with ear complaints and injuries. Why? Many ear conditions and injuries arise from things associated with warm weather and busier outdoor activity, like water sports, motorcycles, and amusement park rides, Fourth of July celebrations, flying insects! They all can create their special problems for your ears if you’re not careful. Let me tell you how.
Water Sports and Other Amusements
Infections and barotrauma injury (sudden atmospheric pressure changes from wind force or deep water) to the ears are the two most common types of injuries that can occur frequently in summer. Here’s how they happen:
Swimmer’s Ear: Water gets into the ear canal and destroys its natural acidity that normally checks bacteria. Infections can start deep in the ear and become very painful. Kids most often get swimmer’s ear but I see a lot of adult patients with it as well. In fact, you can get swimmer’s ear from getting water in your ear in the shower!
The symptoms are itching at first, a sense of blockage, decreased hearing, and then pain. However, swimmer’s ear is pretty easily treated with antibiotic eardrops that should relieve the symptoms in about 48 hours.
Helpful Tips: If you like to dive and/or swim under water a lot, use earplugs. Make sure you dry your outer ear canal so water doesn’t trickle down into your inner ear. To prevent infection, restore acid balance by instilling 3-4 drops of an equal mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol into your ears. The vinegar restores the acid balance and the alcohol dries out the water. Do not use Q-tips in your ears! Not only can your hand slip and cause an eardrum penetration injury, but also tiny cotton fibers can get lodged in your ear and cause infection.
Scuba Diving, Jet Skiing, Kite Surfing, and Motorcycles: When the pressure from rushing wind (like that in fast jet skiing, motorcycles, or kite surfing) or deep water (scuba diving) isn’t equalized, it can damage the eardrum. Symptoms include ringing in the ears, hearing loss, or blood coming from the ear.
Helpful Tips: If you have trouble equalizing pressure while scuba diving, rise up in the water until you can. Don’t go diving with cold or sinus congestion already present as this causes extra pressure on your inner ear. If you’re going to jet ski, wind surf, kite surf, cover your ears with either a neoprene hood made for water sports and/or ear plugs. For motorcycling, keep a helmet on, with your head facing forward. Turning it sideways allows wind to rush into the ear canal at a high pressure. Not only can it blow dirt and bugs into your ear, but also the pressure alone can damage your hearing.
Surfer’s Ear: This is an overgrowth of bone in the external ear canal that occurs from exposure to cold water and wind. Bony lumps grow in the ear canal and can cause infections and a feeling of congestion and muffled hearing. Prevalent amongst cold-water surfers, people who jet ski, wind surf, kite surf, or participate in any water sports where high pressure wind effects their ears. Surgery is usually the treatment of choice to remove the bone growths.
Amusement Park Rides: Riding roller coasters and high sudden drop type amusement park rides can cause a loss of pressure in your ears, much the way deep water can damage the eardrum. Researchers studied people who rode high, fast roller coasters and found that if they turned their head even slightly during the first big drop, rushing, high-pressure air forced into the ear canal was significant enough to cause hearing loss.
Helpful Tips: Wear a neoprene hood or swim cap for water or kite surfing to keep your ears covered. Use earplugs and keep your head facing forward if you want to brave the extreme height of roller coasters or “sudden drop” type rides.
The Noise of Summer
With the warm weather comes noisy building/road construction, Fourth of July celebrations, loud rock concerts, auto races, even lawnmowers, all of which can damage your hearing. Let me share with you how loud noise from situations like this can injure your ears.
Firecrackers, Concerts, Auto Races: If you’ve ever shot off M-80’s or cherry bomb firecrackers on the Fourth of July, you know how loud they can be up close. If you attend an outdoor fireworks lightshow, these rapid percussion explosions can have the same effect on your ears as being in a war zone with shells going off. Similarly, ever go to an outdoor rock concert, or auto race and see people holding their hands over their ears? Typically, these events are very loud in the 90 to 140 decibel range. Anything over 80 db can permanently damage your hearing. At best it can leave your hearing muffled for several hours afterwards.
Helpful Tips: You go to fireworks displays for the beautiful colors and designs bursting against the night sky, not the explosive noise they make. Do yourself a favor and protect your ears, wear earplugs! For concerts and auto races, yeah, it’s great to be right up near the stage or the track, but your ears/hearing will thank you for getting seats farther back or lawn tickets.
Building/road construction, lawnmowers: I don’t know what are louder, jackhammers or those very high pitched, high velocity saws cutting through steel. If you live or work nearby this kind of very loud decibel construction and find you have to shout to talk to someone, this is too much noise for the safety of your ears and hearing. Similarly, lawn services with those big, loud lawnmowers on yours or your neighbors’ lawn all summer can adversely affect your hearing.
Helpful Tips: Again, get some earplugs. Try damping the noise by keeping the windows closed and pulling heavy sound muffling drapes over them.
Insects, Dirt, and Other Fly Bys
It may sound like something out of an urban legend but insects really do get into people’s ears, eyes and mouth! In fact, it’s happened to several of my patients. Most often this occurs while riding a bike and you run into flying bugs at just the right angle to your ear. It can also occur when you are swimming because bugs floating on the water see a safe haven to swim into.
Similarly, dirt, or other flying debris, can get into your ears from working outside, especially if its windy and you are clearing brush, or gardening, where debris can easily fall onto your ears. This kind of ear intrusion can cause inflammation and irritation for both you and your ear.
Helpful Tips: If you get an insect, dirt or debris in your ear, do not put your finger or any other object, like Q-tips or tweezers, in your ear to try and remove it. This can cause an insect to sting or bite, and/or drive what’s in there further into your ear canal. Instead put some baby oil or olive oil in a dropper and put several drops into your ear. Then lay with your affected ear down. The oil usually will suffocate an insect and it will float out. Similarly, dirt or other debris should be able to float out too. It might be best to seek medical attention as a doctor can safely flush your ear of any obstruction.
Cuts, Scrapes, and Bangs
If you cut or scrape an ear somehow, apply pressure if bleeding badly. Outer ears are very rich in blood vessels and can bleed profusely. Seek medical attention immediately if ear tissue has been lost and bleeding does not stop after 5 minutes of pressure. For more minor scrapes, gently clean with warm soap and water or hydrogen peroxide. Apply a compressive bandage and some ice to avoid swelling and pain. See your doctor if the swelling or pain doesn’t let up.
If you get hit in the ear by a flying object such as a baseball, Frisbee, or rock, seek medical attention as soon as possible to determine that there is no damage to the inner ear.
Although summer sports and outdoor fun have their own particular ear health and safety concerns, taking a few precautions ahead of time can help assure that you don’t damage your hearing or inner ear. Accidents always happen, especially in the summer, but using a little common sense can minimize any permanent damage to your ears and allow you to enjoy all the fun that summer can bring!