Ears: Facts, function & disease

ears, ear anatomy
The ears not only provide the ability to hear, but also make it possible for maintain balance. (Image credit: Ninell | Shutterstock )

The ear isn't just the hearing organ. It is a complex system of parts that not only allows humans to hear, but also makes it possible for humans to walk. 

How big are human ears?

Ears come in many shapes and sizes. Typically, men's ears are larger than women's, according to a study in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Researchers also found that the average ear is about 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters) long, and the average ear lobe is 0.74 inches (1.88 cm) long and 0.77 inches (1.96 cm) wide. They also noted that the ear does indeed get larger as a person ages.

For instance, researchers in Germany reported in 2007 in the Anthropologischer Anzeiger: Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology that women's ears increased in size less than men's ears did. Whereas the maximum ear length for a 20-year-old woman in the study was 2.4 inches  (6.1 cm), it reached up to 2.8 inches (7.2 cm) for women older than 70. For men, those lengths were 2.6 inches (6.5 cm) at age 20 and 3 inches (7.8 cm) for individuals over 70. 

Another study at Texas Tech University confirmed this observation. The study found that as people age, the ear's circumference increases on average 0.51 millimeters per year, likely due to aging changes of collagen. A correlation between age and ear circumference can be put into an equation: Ear circumference in mm = 88.1 + (0.51 x subject's age). Conversely, a person's age can therefore be calculated by the size of a person’s ear, using the equation: Subject's age = 1.96 x (Ear circumference in mm – 88.1)

Olive Pro: 2-in-1 Hearing Aids & Bluetooth Earbuds | $199 and up at Olive Union

Olive Pro: 2-in-1 Hearing Aids & Bluetooth Earbuds | $199 and up at Olive Union

The Olive Pro is a combination hearing aid and bluetooth earbud that the company says will help with speech and conversational understanding, because of the automated background noise cancellation and crisp sound quality. The Olive Pro is currently on pre-order.

How do ears function?

The ear has three main parts: external ear, middle ear and inner ear. They all have different, but important, features that facilitate hearing and balance.

How hearing works

The external ear, also called the auricle or pinna, is the loop of cartilage and skin that is attached to the outside of the head. It works much like a megaphone. Sound waves are funneled through the external ear and piped into the external auditory canal, according to Nebraska Medicine. The auditory canal is the part of the ear hole that can easily be seen when looking at an ear up-close. 

The sound waves pass through the auditory canal and reach the tympanic membrane, better known as the eardrum. Just like when a drum is hit by a drumstick, the thin sheet of connective tissue vibrates when sound waves strike it. 

The vibrations pass through the tympanic membrane and enter the middle ear, also called the tympanic cavity. The tympanic cavity is lined with mucosa and filled with air and the auditory ossicles, which are three tiny bones called the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), and stapes (stirrup), according to Encyclopedia Britannica

As the bones vibrate, the stapes pushes a structure called the oval window in and out, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). This action is passed on to the inner ear and the cochlea, a fluid-filled, spiral-shaped structure that contains the spiral organ of Corti, which is the receptor organ for hearing. Tiny hair cells in this organ translate the vibrations into electrical impulses that are carried to the brain by sensory nerves.

Anatomy of the ear. (Image credit: Alila Medical Media Shutterstock

How ears help with balance

The Eustachian tube, or pharyngotympanic tube, equalizes air pressure in the middle ear with the air pressure in the atmosphere. This process helps humans retain their balance.

The vestibular complex, in the inner ear, is also important to balance because it contains receptors that regulate a sense of equilibrium. The inner ear is connected to the vestibulocochlear nerve, which carries sound and equilibrium information to the brain.

Ear diseases & conditions

Ears are delicate organs that can be damaged by physical injuries, bacteria or even changes in the environment.

Ear infections are the most common illness in babies and younger children, according to the NLM. Common symptoms of ear infections are drainage from the ear, hearing loss, earache, fever, headache, pain in the ear and a feeling of fullness in the ear, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians

Meniere's disease a disease of the inner ear that may be the result of fluid problems inside the ear. Symptoms include hearing loss, pressure or pain, dizziness and tinnitus. Tinnitus is a roaring in the ears. It can also be caused by loud noises, medicines or a variety of other causes.

Ear barotrauma is an injury to the ear due to changes in barometric or water pressure, according to the NLM. It typically occurs during flights in an airplane, traveling to places at high altitudes or diving into deep waters. Symptoms include pain, stuffy ears, hearing loss and dizziness. Barotrauma can usually be fixed by “popping” the ears by yawning, chewing gum or trying to blow outward while keeping the nose pinched and mouth closed.

Ear wax, also called cerumen, has antibacterial properties and also lubricates and protects the ear. Normal amounts shouldn’t bother most people, though sometimes, wax can build up and should be removed, according to The American Academy of Otolaryngology. Symptoms of wax build-up is a feeling of blockage in the ears, coughing, odor, discharge, itching and hearing loss. 

Hearing loss

Hearing loss is not just something that plagues older individuals. Two to three out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. has hearing loss in both ears. And 15% of Americans ages 18 and up report some type of hearing trouble, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

Even so, age is the largest predictor of hearing loss in those 20 to 69 years old, according to the NIDCD. Hearing typically declines with age naturally, though damage to the ear can cause hearing loss at a very young age. 

"We are seeing more and more patients with significant hearing loss as early as the late teenaged years," Dr. Sreekant Cherukuri, a board-certified otolaryngologist based in Chicago and the founder of MDHearingAid, told Live Science. "Noise-induced hearing loss is a growing problem in this country. We are connected to phones and music players, often for hours each day. When our ears are exposed to harmful noise, delicate cells in the inner ear become damaged. Unfortunately, the damage is cumulative over time."

Promoting good ear health 

Once hearing is gone, it is impossible to repair it naturally. Most patients with hearing loss need surgery or hearing aids. "The good news is that this is 100 percent preventable," said Cherukuri. "I tell my patients to follow the 60-60 rule when they use earbuds or headphones: No more than 60 percent of full volume for no longer than 60 minutes at a time."

People who participate in noisy activities or hobbies, such as sporting events, music concerts, shooting sports, motorcycle riding or mowing the lawn, should also wear earplugs or noise-canceling or noise-blocking headphones to help protect the ears.

Careful cleaning is another way to prevent hearing loss and damage. The American Academy of Otolaryngology suggests cleaning the external ear with a cloth. Then, put a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in the ear to soften the wax and help it drain out of the ear. A few drops of hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also help. Never insert anything into the ear.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like more information on this topic, we recommend the following book:

Parts of the human body

Systems of the human body

Additional resources

Alina Bradford
Live Science Contributor
Alina Bradford is a contributing writer for Live Science. Over the past 16 years, Alina has covered everything from Ebola to androids while writing health, science and tech articles for major publications. She has multiple health, safety and lifesaving certifications from Oklahoma State University. Alina's goal in life is to try as many experiences as possible. To date, she has been a volunteer firefighter, a dispatcher, substitute teacher, artist, janitor, children's book author, pizza maker, event coordinator and much more.