It can be easy to take your ears for granted until they suddenly wallop you with pain. Or maybe the world begins to sound like you’re swimming underwater when your feet are firmly planted on land. Whatever the specifics, as soon as your ears act up, you probably become acutely aware of just how important this body part is.
Summer is prime time for ear problems, Nina Shapiro, M.D., a pediatric otolaryngologist at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and author of Hype, tells SELF. All that swimming, traveling, and exploring the great outdoors can quite easily make people need medical help for ear issues, Dr. Shapiro explains.
Here, the most common ear problems doctors see during warmer months—plus what to do if you think you’re dealing with one of them.
1. Loud events like music festivals and fireworks shows can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss.
They might be summertime staples, but repeatedly exposing yourself to things like concerts and fireworks can degrade your hearing over time, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
A quick primer on why this can happen: Your ear is made up of three main sections known as the outer, middle, and inner ear, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Say you’re sitting at the beach listening to water hit the sand. Sound waves enter your outer ear and travel to the middle portion via a narrow passageway called the ear canal. When those sound waves reach your eardrum—a piece of tissue separating your outer and middle ear—they make it vibrate. As those vibrations reach your inner ear, delicate hair cells send nerve impulses to your brain, and voilà—you hear the ocean breaking against the sand.
So, where does the hearing loss portion come in? “All sound is a pressure wave,” David H. Jung, M.D., Ph.D., an attending surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, tells SELF. If a sound is too loud, it can put too much pressure on your eardrum, which may tear this fragile membrane. (This is known as a perforated or ruptured eardrum, which we’ll dive into with more detail below.) It could also destroy the delicate hair cells of the inner ear that send those essential nerve impulses to your brain. Either of these scenarios can lead to permanent noise-induced hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss is more likely to happen if you have repeated or prolonged exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels, according to the NIDCD. It can even occur after a one-time exposure to a really loud noise around or over 120 decibels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. Though these numbers can vary, heavy city traffic clocks in at about 85 decibels, according to the NIDCD. A concert can take it up to the 95 to 115 decibel range. Fireworks may register between 140 and 160 decibels.
The problem with noise-induced hearing loss is that you might not notice it right away. Instead, your hearing may diminish over time until the world starts to sound muffled, according to the NIDCD. There is a chance that you’ll experience ringing in your ears (also called tinnitus) or a weaker sense of hearing for hours after a loud event, but these symptoms typically clear up in the short-term, so you may not realize you’re dealing with irreversible hearing damage.
While it may seem counterintuitive, wearing earplugs at concerts can seal off your ear canal, lowering the likelihood of harm. Think about how loud concerts are; you can still get a great show. If you’re not into that idea, at least consider standing back from the speakers instead of planting yourself right in front of them. It’s a similar thing with fireworks: Wear earplugs and stand back if you can.
2. Airplane ascents and descents can make your ears hurt like heck, especially if you’re stuffed up.
Ever wonder why babies scream when a plane takes off or lands? It has to do with thin passageways called Eustachian tubes. You have one on each side of your face to link your middle ear, the back of your nose, and your upper throat, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. These tubes regulate the pressure in your middle ears so that it’s the same as the pressure outside of your body.
When a plane takes off, air pressure drops. This makes it easier for air to escape from your middle ears so that there’s an imbalance, Dr. Jung explains. As the plane lands and outside air pressure rapidly increases, too much air can enter into your middle ears. In either of these instances, your ears might feel all clogged up, which can dull sound and cause discomfort or pain.
While this is most likely to happen in kids because their smaller Eustachian tubes have a harder time equalizing pressure, it can affect adults, too. You’re especially vulnerable when you have a cold, allergies, or anything else that congests you. Infection or inflammation can make your Eustachian tubes swell and trap fluid, leading to pressure and pain. In an extreme case, the pressure could lead to a perforated eardrum.
If you’re prone to ear clogging or pain on planes, try swallowing or chewing gum during takeoff and landing. This naturally opens up the Eustachian tubes, allowing the air in your middle ear to equalize, Dr. Jung says. “Popping” your ears—squeezing your nostrils closed and gently blowing your nose—can help equalize pressure, too, he adds.
If you’re going to be flying while congested, taking a decongestant an hour before takeoff and landing can clear you (and your Eustachian tubes) up, possibly helping you sidestep this issue, Dr. Jung says.
3. Frolicking in large bodies of water can lead to swimmer’s ear.
Call it swimmer’s ear, otitis externa, or external otitis, but this condition means one thing: You have a skin infection inside your ear canal. This can crop up after spending a lot of time in the water, such as the lakes, rivers, pools, and oceans that seem particularly inviting in the summertime. “Water or humidity can get trapped in the ear canal, and bacteria and fungus like to grow in warm, wet environments,” Dr. Shapiro explains.
You might think it makes sense to soak up any post-swim moisture with a cotton swab, but you should avoid this urge. Using a cotton swab can scratch the ear canal, creating a portal for bacteria or fungi to cause an infection, Dr. Jung says. You could even rupture your eardrum if you’re too forceful. (This is why many doctors advise against using cotton swabs to clean your ears.)
Red flags that you may have swimmer’s ear include itchiness inside of your ear and pain that intensifies if you pull on your outer ear, according to the American College of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. You may also feel like your ear is plugged up, not be able to hear as well, experience fever, or feel liquid draining from your ear.
You’ll need a doctor to determine whether the infection is fungal or bacterial, then prescribe anti-fungal or antibiotic drops to clear up the issue.
4. Summer colds and allergies can lead to ear infections (nope, they’re not just for children).
Sure, ear infections are more common in kids, since their Eustachian tubes are both smaller and more level than adults’. This makes it more difficult for them to handle one of their main tasks beyond equalizing your ear pressure: draining naturally occurring fluid from your middle ears. But even healthy adults can get ear infections, also known as acute otitis media.
When you have a sinus infection, cold, allergies, or anything else that turns you into a walking mucus factory, your Eustachian tubes can swell up and have a hard time draining fluid properly. That liquid makes you susceptible to a bacterial or viral infection. If this happens to you, you might feel localized achiness, fluid leaking from your ear, or experience temporary hearing loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some ear infections clear up on their own in a week or two. In the meantime, using pain-relieving drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help with the discomfort, as can applying a warm, wet compress over your ear, the Mayo Clinic says. But if bacteria caused the infection, you’ll need an antibiotic, so be sure to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist, also called an ENT) if symptoms persist.
5. If you’re stressed from traveling, you might have ear pain stemming from your jaw.
Going on vacation is supposed to help you relax, but the actual process of traveling can cause pretty intense stress. If you clench your teeth when you’re stressed or grind them in your sleep, that wear and tear on your jaw could cause ear pain. “The pain radiates [to the ear] from the jaw joint,” Dr. Jung says.
If you have an earache accompanied by other symptoms like a headache, clicking or popping of your jaw, problems biting or chewing, and having a hard time opening your mouth, make an appointment with your primary care provider or dentist to see if your jaw is the problem. They may have you use a mouthguard at night to stop clenching or grinding, and they might also be able to recommend jaw stretches or relaxation techniques to help keep pain at bay, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
6. Joining in on water-related activities could lead to a burst eardrum.
Land flat on your ear after flubbing a cannonball or descend too quickly when scuba diving and you might experience a perforated eardrum. Both a sudden change in ear pressure (such diving into water) or direct trauma (like landing sideways on water) can cause your eardrum to rupture, Dr. Jung explains. This is about as pleasant as it sounds. “The eardrum has many, many nerves, so it can be a very high pain center,” says Dr. Shapiro.
After that initial burst of pain, you might feel better quickly because the hole in your eardrum allows the pressure in your middle ear to better match that of your environment. Beyond that, a perforated eardrum can cause symptoms such as fluid leaking from your ear, vertigo that might induce nausea or vomiting, hearing loss, and a ringing sound in your ear, according to the Mayo Clinic. If water enters the middle ear through a hole in the eardrum, you’re at an increased risk of infection, too.
Small eardrum holes may heal on their own in about two months, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains. In the meantime, you’ll usually have to (gently) put cotton balls in your ears when you shower (to keep water from entering the middle ear) and avoid swimming.
If your ruptured eardrum doesn't work itself out, your doctor might be able to patch it together with a chemical gel, medical-grade paper, or some of your own tissue, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. In rare cases, a perforated eardrum can cause permanent hearing loss.
If you think you burst your eardrum and feel extremely dizzy, have a fever, hear very loud ringing, have bad hearing loss, or are in severe pain, you might have an infection. Make an appointment with an ENT to find out the best course of treatment.
7. Surfer’s ear can cause tiny bumps in your ear canal.
Just because the sun is shining doesn’t mean the water’s fine. Spend a lot of time surfing, kayaking, or doing similar sports in chilly waters and bony bumps might build up along your ear canal over time. (We’re talking years, here. This is not an immediate thing.) This is known as external auditory exostoses.
This phenomenon is thought to be the result of repeated exposure to wind and cold water, which can lead to inflammation that spurs bone growth and creates these small protrusions. If the bumps grow enough, they can lead to a plugged up sensation in your ears, decreased ability to hear, and ear infection.
Big on water sports? Wearing protective gear like earplugs and wetsuit hoods may help prevent the issue. If you’re suffering from an infection or your symptoms are severe, a doctor might suggest removing the bumps with surgery.
If you’re dealing with ear pain or any other strange symptoms that won't go away, see your PCP or ENT for help.
There are clearly a few different things that can cause ear issues, so it might be hard for you to figure out what’s up on your own. Luckily, that’s precisely why doctors exist. Walk a medical expert through your symptoms and any potential causes (like that festival you went to last week or the swim you take every morning). Hopefully, they can get you on the road to relief.