Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, has all kinds of causes, ranging from growths on the auditory nerve, to stress, to damage from noise.
The latter is avoidable or at least can be moderated.
Dr. Michael Ellis, an ear, nose and throat specialist and a clinical professor of otolaryngology at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, offered some tips for preserving ear health.
• If a friend standing next to you while you're plugged into your iPod or MP3 can hear the sound through your earphones, the volume is too loud. Watch car radio volume, too.
• If your work exposes you to constant loud noise or if you use loud tools to work in the yard, wear ear plugs. "Constant exposure to very loud noises may eventually cause permanent damage to your hearing," Dr. Ellis said. Even exposure for a short time, like at a concert, can cause temporarily muffled hearing or tinnitus. "It's best to protect your ears when you know there will be loud noise because once hearing damage occurs, what you've lost can never be recovered," he said.
• If you fly a lot or if you fly when you are congested, suck on hard candy or chew gum during takeoffs and landings to help open the eustachian tube. That prevents the sensation of "popping" and perforation of the eardrum as it tries to adjust to changes in pressure. If you have or have had a head cold, try some decongestant medication or nose spray to also help clear the eustachian tube.
• Cotton swabs should be used only to clean the outer ear. Too often, Dr. Ellis said, people use the swabs to clean farther into the ear canal, causing an impaction or even perforation of the ear drum.
• Ear wax normally acts as a water repellent, but a wax buildup can end up trapping water in your ear canal, leading to an infection. "To keep water out of the ear canal, tilt your head to the right and the left to allow proper drainage after taking a shower, swimming, etc.," Dr. Ellis said. If the sensation of water in the ear continues, use a few drops of rubbing alcohol to dry any residual liquid.
• If you wear headphones or ear buds to listen to music for even an hour a day, more germs are entering your ear. It's important to keep the equipment clean to avoid a potential bacterial infection. Wipe them down with rubbing alcohol before each use.