The cold weather is here, time for winter gloves, boots, and hats. Unfortunately, spending extended periods outdoors in the cold can be detrimental to your health, and if you are not careful, you can risk long-term and possibly irreversible damage, especially to your ears. To understand the importance of ear protection, learning about cold weather effects on the ears is essential.
The Cold and Ear Sensitivity
Your ears are primarily cartilage, meaning that the ears lack significant insulation from fat or muscle, unlike other parts of your body. The lack of protective layers means that ears are more sensitive to the cold and are often the first parts of your body to respond to frigid temperatures.
It is not uncommon for your ears to experience feelings of extreme cold and discomfort within only a few minutes of being exposed to the elements. The cold weather leads to slow blood circulation, and the unprotected nerves in the ear canal create pain impulses to notify you of the potential danger of staying out for too long.
The sensitivity of the ears not only encourages the use of earmuffs or winter caps, but it also alludes to the dangers of exposure. Indeed, staying out in the cold without adequate protection can risk your hearing.
Cold Weather and Hearing Loss
While cold weather does not directly correlate to hearing loss, prolonged and chronic exposure to frigid temperatures can lead to biological alterations risking it. To protect itself from the cold, the body will increase bone growth in the ear, specifically the ear canal. Commonly referred to as “surfer’s ear”, exostosis occurs in people partaking in cold water or outdoor sports, like surfing, snowboarding, or skiing.
Exostosis is a damaging growth for ear health and hearing because it narrows the canal, making the drainage of water, ear wax, and dirt difficult. Without proper expulsion of these materials, the ear is prone to infections. Repetitive infections can result in permanent hearing loss.
While procedures exist to correct the excess bone growth, recovery is intense and extensive. People going through the surgery will need to avoid the cold to ensure adequate recovery. For those working or playing in cold temperatures regularly, it is best to use ear protection and prevent unnecessary risks.
Temperature and Ear Protection
Most people believe that ear protection is unnecessary if the temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit or above, but that is incorrect. At this temperature, your blood vessels attempt to consolidate warmth and constrict, leaving your ears more susceptible to chilly temperatures. Therefore, any temperature 59 or below requires ear protection, especially when outdoors.
Beyond protecting your ears with muffs or a hat, consider the environmental noise. For instance, construction workers should look for ear covers that warm the ear and protect against loud sounds. However, remember that warmth and noise cancellation are not the only goals; you also want to prevent moisture buildup.
If your hat or earmuffs get wet, you need to replace them or go inside while they dry. Letting excess moisture build in your ear canal can lead to infections and damage. Some people, attempting to avoid moisture buildup, choose to put cotton or something else in their ears. Foreign objects can force earwax deeper into your ear canal, and cotton can hold moisture, so do not place things into your ears.
Cold Weather and Ear Infections
While cold weather can be damaging to the ears, it alone does not cause ear infections. Upper respiratory infections, often the result of bacteria, lead to infections by traveling up the eustachian tube and settling in the middle ear.
Most people believe there is a correlation between infections and cold weather because the cold tends to make symptoms more pronounced. People also incorrectly believe because cold weather can lead to ear pain, but the pain you feel is associated with blood circulation, not bacteria.
While cold is not an indicator of increased infection risks, there are plenty of things to worry about, which is why ear protection is a must. However, for protection to be adequate, it must cover the ear, not allowing wind to contact the skin.
Ear Infection Prevention
Cold weather ear care is about more than keeping your ears warm and dry. The uncomfortable truth is that the colder months lead to an increase in bacteria and infection rates. Therefore, ear protection goes beyond muffs to the prevention of illness.
Ear infection prevention is not as complicated as it sounds. There are primarily six ways you can reduce your risks and limit your exposure to harmful bacteria.
- Good hygiene:
Keeping your ears clean is mandatory. Use warm water and a washcloth to wipe the outer ear clean. When done, use a clean finger covered with a tissue to dry the ear. Try to avoid using cotton swabs, as these force the earwax deep into the canal, making it difficult to remove later.
- Flu shot:
Just as immunizations are essential for childhood health and development, a flu shot helps the body defend against infections by boosting the immune system’s defenses.
- Cold prevention:
During the cold season, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. You should also avoid touching your face when out in public and keep your distance from people to prevent unconscious transmission of germs and bacteria.
- Allergy control:
Use nasal sprays or allergy relief medications to prevent the inflammation or congestion of nasal passageways. You want to keep your nose clear to protect the eustachian tube at the back of your throat.
- Nasal irrigation:
Irrigating your nostrils using a saline or saltwater solution is an excellent way to rinse away allergens and harmful bacteria. The solution goes in one nostril and out the other, and you can find tools to help with the process.
- Healthy lifestyle:
As often is the case, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising can reduce illness or infection risks. Avoid smoking and drinking for better health effects.
Ear care during cold seasons is essential, especially when it comes to the protection against frigid temperatures and the prevention of infections. However, ear health should remain a focus throughout the year.