December 26, 2018
It’s that time of year again! Time to pull out the winter coats, boots, and gloves and face the cold winter weather. But before you head outdoors for work, don’t forget the winter hats and ear muffs. For those who are spending extended periods of time outside working in the cold weather, it is extremely important to keep ear health top of mind to avoid long-term damage that will extend past the cold winter temperatures. Whether it be low temperatures, frigid winds, or icy rain and snow, winter weather can be extremely harmful, and keeping ears warm is a necessary precaution outside workers need to take to stay safe.
Why are Your Ears the First Part of Your Body to Get Cold?
Ever notice that when you are outside in frigid temperatures, it only takes a couple of minutes for your ears to feel like they are covered in ice? Similar to the nose, ears are comprised of mainly cartilage and do not have a lot of insulating fat, causing them to get cold faster than other body parts.1 In addition to the fact they are often not protected and directly exposed to the cold, that makes them one of the first parts of your body to feel the bitter cold air.
But what about the inside of your ears? If you've ever felt pain on the inside of your ears after being outside in cold weather, that is because the nerves in the ear canal are also unprotected and react with a strong pain impulse whenever they are cold. Internal ear pain can also be caused by the lack of blood circulation caused by cold and wind.1
Does Cold Weather Cause Hearing Loss?
While it may not be a winter injury that comes to your mind at first, it’s true, spending a lot of time in the cold weather without any ear protection can lead to problems that can ultimately cause hearing loss. If you are consistently exposing your ears to cold temperatures, your body can react by increasing bone growth in the ear canal in an attempt to block the cold. This growth is called exotosis, and is often referred to as surfer’s ear, since surfers who are spending extended time in cold water often develop this growth. This is also very common among those who partake in winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding, and can also affect those who are working outside in the cold.
While this is the body’s effort to keep your ears safe, exotosis can actually cause harmful damage to ear health and hearing. The bone growth constricts the ear canal making it difficult to drain water, dirt, and ear wax, which can lead to continuous ear infections, which can in turn lead to permanent hearing loss.
Fortunately, exotosis can be surgically removed, but it does require extended recovery time away from any cold wind and water.2
How Can I Keep My Ears Safe and Sound This Winter?
While 59°F may not seem very cold, that is when you should consider wearing ear protection. Beginning at 59°F, your blood vessels begin to constrict in an effort to consolidate warmth and your ears become more susceptible to the cold.3 As the temperatures dip further below that benchmark, it is even more important to protect your ears and keep them warm.
First and foremost, make sure you have some sort of ear protection while you are outside, such as ear muffs or a hat that covers the ears. While both are great options to keep your ears warm, if workers are also faced with occupational noise, be sure to provide them with ear muffs that not only protect their ears from the cold weather, but also protect against noise exposure.
In addition to keeping your ears nice and toasty, proper ear protection can also prevent moisture build up in the ear, which can often lead to infection. To further avoid infection, be sure to switch out hats or muffs if they get wet since that can also prevent them from keeping your ears warm.
While covering the ear is beneficial in protecting it from cold winter weather, putting items inside the ear is not as safe and effective. While some people put cotton swabs or cotton wool inside their ear in an effort to stay warm or to keep the inside of the ear dry, this can cause inflammation and lead to further problems.2 Instead, use a hair dryer on a low heat setting to get rid of any moisture in your ears and continue to cover them while you are outside.
MedExpress aims to keep your employees healthy all year long. To ensure cold weather or loud outdoor noises aren’t taking a toll on your employees’ hearing, make sure you are conducting regular audiometry testing to measure possible hearing loss.
1 EHS Today: Don’t Let Jack Frost Nip Your Ears: Keeping Ears Safe and Sound (and Warm and Dry). Last updated February 15, 2013. Accessed October 23, 2018.
2 People Hearing Better: Keeping Your Ears Warm Matters. Last updated January 26, 2016. Accessed October 23, 2018.
3 Cary Audiology Associates: Fall Weather and Your Ear Health. Last updated October 20, 2016. Accessed October 26, 2018.