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An earplug is a device that is meant to be inserted in the ear canal to protect the user's ears from loud noises or the intrusion of water, foreign bodies, dust or excessive wind.
Some earplugs are primarily designed to keep water out of the ear canal, especially during swimming and water sports. This type of earplug may be made of wax or moldable silicone which is custom-fitted to the ear canal by the wearer.
Exostosis, or Surfer's ear, is a condition which affects people who spend large amounts of time in water in cold climates. In addition, wind may increase the prevalence of the amount of exostosis seen in one ear versus the other dependent on the direction it originates from and the orientation of the individual to the wind. Custom-fitted surfer's earplugs help reduce the amount of cold water and wind that is allowed to enter the external ear canal and, thus, help slow the progression of exostosis.
A 2003 study published in Clinical Otolaryngology found that a cotton ball saturated with petroleum jelly was more effective at keeping water out of the ear, was easier to use, and was more comfortable than wax plugs, foam plugs, EarGuard, or Aquafit.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau warned that earplugs are harmful to divers, especially scuba divers. Scuba divers breathe compressed air or other gas mixtures at a pressure matching the water pressure. This pressure is also inside the ear, but not between the eardrum and the earplug, so the pressure behind the eardrum will often burst the eardrum. Skin divers have less pressure inside the ears, but they also have only atmospheric pressure in the outer ear canal. The PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) advises in the "Open Water Diver Manual" that only vented earplugs designed for diving should be used in diving.
There are mainly four types of earplugs for hearing protection:
NIOSH Mining Safety and Health Research recommends using the roll, pull, and hold method when using memory foam earplugs. The process involves the user rolling the earplug into a thin rod, pulling back on the ear, and holding the earplug deep in the canal with the finger. To get a complete seal, the user must wait about 20 to 30 seconds for the earplug to expand inside the canal.
NIOSH Recommended Noise Exposure levels
|Level of noise in dB(A)
||Maximum daily exposure time
Foam earplugs, mainly made from either polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane (PU) (memory foam), which are compressed (rolled) and put into the ear canal, where they expand to plug it
Silicone earplugs, which are rolled into a ball and carefully molded to fit over the external portion of the ear canal
Flanged earplugs, including most types of musicians' or 'Hi-Fi' earplugs.
Custom molded earplugs, made from a mold of the wearer's ear and designed to precisely fit all ear canal shapes. Custom molded is further divided into laboratory-made and "formed in place"
- Derated NRR = (Original NRR x (1-.25)) – 7
- Pushing in earplugs into the external ear canal may cause the air pressure to rise in it, in effect pushing against the eardrum and causing pain. This may be caused by pressure on the ear while lying down on the side, and is also the case when completely expanded foam earplugs are pushed further into the ear. To bypass the latter risk, such earplugs are instead removed, compressed and inserted to the desired depth. Vice versa, when pulled out, the resultant negative pressure pulls the eardrum. Therefore, some earplugs are better carefully screwed or jiggled out rather than yanked out. Yawning does not help to equalize this air pressure difference, since it equalizes the pressures between the middle ear and the environment, while this overpressure rather is located in the outer ear, between the eardrum and the earplug.
- If pushed too far into the ear canal, they may push earwax and debris into the canal and possibly against the ear drum. As a precaution, earplugs should not be pushed further into the ear canal than they may be grabbed and rotated. Earwax impacted by earplugs can be removed by irrigation or other remedies, as described here.
- There is a possibility of allergic reactions, but this is likely rare, as earplugs generally are made of immunologically inert materials.
- They may cause earwax to build up and plug the outer ear, since it blocks the normal flow of earwax outwards. This can result in tinnitus, hearing loss, discharge, pain or infection. Excess earwax should be carefully removed from the ear, and earplugs should be cleaned regularly with water and mild soap. However, foam type earplugs are usually designed to be disposable, and will expand and lose their memory property upon drying after washing with water and soap. From then on, they will expand very quickly after being compressed, making proper insertion into the ear canal quite problematic. They also lose a large proportion of sound attenuating capability after such washing and drying.
- They may cause irritation of the temporomandibular joint, which is located very close to the ear canal, causing pain. Individually fitted non-elastic earplugs may be less likely to cause this irritation compared with foam ones that expand inside the ear canal.
- Earplugs are also a possible cause of ear inflammation (otitis externa), although the short-term use of earplugs when swimming and shampooing hair may actually help prevent it. Still, many pathogenic bacteria grow well on warm, moist, foam-type plugs (polyvinylchloride (PVC) or polyurethane). However, there need also be a loss of integrity of the skin for infection to occur. Hard and poorly fitting earplugs can scratch the skin of the ear canal and set off an episode. When earplugs are used during an acute episode, disposable plugs are recommended, or used plugs must be cleaned and dried properly to avoid contaminating the healing ear canal with infected discharge.
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