Ear plugs are small, snug devices that fit into the ear canal, and are commonly used to protect the ears from damaging noise. These personal protective devices are used widely in the workplace, to reduce the risk of hearing loss, and are also popular at concerts or other noisy events. Ear plugs can even be used to reduce noise from power tools, lawn mowers and loud snoring. While these plugs offer benefits to those who wear them, prolonged or incorrect use may have some risks.
Ear plugs are known to provide protection from occupational noise exposure and from occasional loud music. However, if ear plugs are not properly or consistently worn, your ears -- and hearing -- may not be fully protected. Also, it's risky to assume that wearing ear plugs is the only safety measure you should employ. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is also essential to avoid or reduce exposure to loud noise. If you need to wear ear protection on the job, be sure to speak with your manager or safety officer to understand what protective devices to use, how to properly wear them, and how to reduce noise exposure as best as possible.
Too Much Protection
Although ear plugs offer protection from prolonged or repeated exposure to loud sounds, you may be concerned that wearing them will make you miss important conversations or sounds that keep you safe from accidents. However, modern ear plugs are available which block harmful noise but allow the user to hear other sounds, such as warning signals and speech. If you are concerned about the safety of wearing ear plugs while working, speak with your manager or safety officer. But be alert to situations where you should avoid wearing ear plugs, such as when bicycling or driving your vehicle, so that you can hear well enough to stay safe.
The ears have a naturally effective system which removes excess earwax. Normal jaw movements, along with the cilia, or tiny hairs that line the ear canal, work together to gradually propel wax towards the outer ear. However, frequent or prolonged use of earplugs may prevent the ears from getting rid of this wax. Also, wearing ear plugs can trigger wax overproduction in the ear canal. This can lead to a buildup of wax called impaction, which can cause ringing in the ears, pain, itching and hearing loss. To prevent impaction, insert ear plugs gently and according to manufacturer guidelines, and wear them only when necessary to protect your hearing. Do not reuse single-use plugs, and clean reusable plugs according to manufacturer recommendations.
Ear infections are commonly blamed on the use of ear plugs, although very little research supports this relationship. However, if single-use, foam ear plugs are worn more than once, or if reusable ear plugs are shared or not kept clean, viruses or bacteria can enter and become trapped in the ear canal -- making an infection more likely. Be sure to properly wear and care for your ear plugs. Also, if the ear plugs are worn when swimming, ensure the plugs are soft and fit properly. If you have sensitive ears, or get infections frequently, you may opt try over-the-ear protection instead.
Correct Use of Ear Plugs
Although both single-use and reusable ear plugs are available, disposable foam ear plugs are most popular due to their low cost, comfort and ease of use. According to the CDC, proper steps to use these foam ear plugs are as follows:
- Using your fingers, roll the ear plug into a small, thin snake-like shape.
- With your opposite hand, pull the top of your ear up and back so that your ear canal is straight.
- Slide the snake-shaped ear plug into the ear, and hold in place with your finger for 30 seconds, allowing the ear plug to expand and fill your ear canal.
- Test your ear plug by ensuring your voice sounds muffled. If sounds are much more muffled when you cup your hands tightly over your ears, the ear plug may not be sealing properly. Take the plug out and try again.
If you need to wear ear plugs often, due to occupational exposure or your preference for loud music, higher quality options are available. Custom-molded plugs, with a personal fit and noise-cancelling technology, and high-fidelity ear plugs -- which decrease sound and maintain music quality -- are becoming more popular. These plugs will come with specific use instructions which should be followed for safe use.
Wearing ear plugs can protect your ears from loud noises, and ultimately prevent hearing loss. Be sure to learn how to properly use and care for your plugs, so that they provide the protection you need. If the ear plugs cause irritation, earwax impaction or if you suspect they are related to ear infections, discuss solutions and ear protection alternatives with your doctor.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Occupational Health and Safety: Ear Plugs: A Field Guide
- JAMA Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: Effectiveness of Earplugs in Preventing Recreational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: A Randomized Clinical Trial.
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Interventions to Prevent Occupational Noise‐Induced Hearing Loss
- Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care: Earwax Impaction: Symptoms, Predisposing Factors and Perception among Nigerians
- American Family Physician: Diagnosis and Management of Cerumen Impaction
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How Do I Prevent Hearing Loss From Loud Noise?
- Earlog: Ear Infection and the Use of Hearing Protection
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: Outer Ear Infection: Overview
- All Ears: Ultimate Guide to Music Ear Plugs
Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.