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Learning About Your Ears

The parts of the ear

What do your ears do?

Your ears make it possible for you to hear. They are also important in helping you keep your balance.

The ear is made up of the external ear canal, middle ear, and inner ear. The middle ear is separated from the ear canal by the eardrum. The middle ear contains the malleus, incus, and stapes bones, which are also known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. The inner ear contains the cochlea, which is the main sensory organ of hearing. The eustachian tube runs from the middle ear to the back part of the nose.

How the ear works

  • Sound waves enter the ear through the ear canal and strike the eardrum.
  • The eardrum vibrates, and the vibrations move to the bones of the middle ear.
  • In response, the bones of the middle ear vibrate, magnifying the sound and sending it to the inner ear.
  • Sound vibrations cause the fluid in the inner ear to move, which bends tiny hair cells (cilia) in the cochlea.
  • The movement of the hair cells creates nerve impulses, which travel along the cochlear nerve to the brain and are interpreted as sound.

What problems can happen to your ears?

Problems with your ears may include:

  • Infection of the middle ear (otitis media).
  • Swelling or infection of the ear canal (swimmer's ear).
  • Backup of fluid behind the eardrum (otitis media with effusion).
  • Hearing loss.
  • Labyrinthitis and BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo), which are problems in the inner ear. They may cause vertigo. Vertigo makes you feel like you're spinning or whirling.
  • Tinnitus, which occurs when you have ringing sounds (or roaring, hissing, buzzing, or tinkling) in your ears.
  • A ruptured eardrum. This is a tear or hole in the membrane of the middle ear.
  • Earwax blockage (impaction) or a build-up of earwax.

How can you prevent ear problems?

    • Do not put cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects in the ear canal.
    • Do not scratch the inside of the ear canal when it is itchy.
    • Avoid home remedies for common ear conditions, such as ear candling to remove wax.
    • Keep the volume down.
      • Limit the sound of your ear pods or headphones when listening to music, videos, radio, or podcasts.
      • Set your device’s maximum volume to a setting where you can still hear people talking around you.
      • Well-fitted noise cancellation earphones and headphones let you hear music, videos, and other sounds clearly at lower volumes.
    • Avoid exposures to loud music, power tools, gunshots, and heavy machinery.
    • Protect your hearing in noisy situations. Wear protective earplugs or earmuffs when you cannot avoid loud noises. Do not use wadded-up tissue or cotton balls as protection. They don't work.
    • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. Smoking and second-hand smoke may make ear problems more likely. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
    • Blow your nose gently, especially when you are sick.
    • If you wear hearing aids, be sure to follow the recommendations carefully for cleaning and storing them.
    • Call your doctor or Health Link at 811 if you have ear pain, a feeling of fullness in the ear, discharge or bleeding from the ear, or hearing loss. Contact your doctor right away if you have a sudden loss of hearing in one ear.

Adapted with permission from copyrighted materials from Healthwise, Incorporated (Healthwise). This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty and is not responsible or liable for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.