The notion that we lose most of our body heat through our head and throat, based on an experiment conducted by the US Army in the 1950s, is nothing more than a myth.
An article in the British Medical Journal confirms just how false this assumption is. For the experiment, researchers had dressed test subjects in long johns but did not cover their heads. The subjects were then placed in conditions of extreme cold to measure their body heat loss. The result: they had lost heat through their head. But had they conducted the same study with subjects dressed in bathing suits, the researchers would have discovered that the subjects lost as much heat through their arms and legs as they had through their head!
That being said, it’s no less true that our head and ears tend to suffer the most in bitterly cold conditions. When the temperature drops, especially below zero, blood flow shifts to our vital organs. The body parts farthest from our torso receive the least blood and therefore chill faster. These include the fingers, toes, nose and—you guessed it—the ears. In fact, all these appendages are covered with a layer of particularly thin skin and lack an insulating layer of muscle.
When your ears get too cold, they really start to hurt. The skin covering the cartilage and the middle ear bones are very sensitive. The pain typically goes away quickly once your ears warm up, and they become pink or red as the blood supply returns.
The cold opens the door to viruses and bacteria. Germs land in and around the nasopharynx and make their way into the Eustachian tube and middle ear. If there’s reduced blood flow to the mucosa, the body’s defence mechanisms can’t work properly, giving free reign to pathogenic germs. This can lead to a painful ear infection and likely a trip to the doctor.
When it’s really cold out, or even when it’s hovering around zero but windy and humid, your ears can suffer from frostbite.
Keep ‘em warm!
During the cold season, keep your ears warm by wearing a tuque, headband or earmuffs. If you hate tuques, consider Earbags® ear warmers, which don’t have a headband. Made of wool, fleece or leather, they simply cover your ears and stay on by themselves. They’re available at sporting goods stores.
Boosting your immune system
Extracts of Echinacea purpurea can be very effective, as can a diet rich in vegetables, even in winter, and exercise like walking or swimming. Regular trips to a sauna or taking alternating hot and cold baths are also known to boost the immune system.
Keep your ears dry!
Getting water in your ears makes them get cold faster. After washing your hair, showering, taking a bath or sitting in a sauna, make sure to properly dry your ear canals before heading back out into the cold. It’s easy to do: just use a hair dryer set to warm—never use the hot setting! Because the ear canal is like a winding tunnel, warm air will reach its target more easily if you pull your outer ear up and back. Because of the risk of injury, cotton swabs should be avoided at all costs.
Say no to cotton
Don’t put cotton in your ears to protect them from the cold. Cotton ear plugs prevent the ear canal from getting the ventilation it needs, creating the warm and moist environment germs thrive in, which can lead to inflammation of the ear canal or middle ear (earache).
Keep your hearing aid warm
Yes, you heard right: a hearing aid can get (too) cold! When the battery that powers a hearing aid gets cold, it doesn’t perform as well and condensation can form inside, damaging the unit. If you use a hearing aid, always keep your ears warm and dry. Ask your audiologist about special drying kits for hearing aids, and whatever you do, don’t put yours on a heater to dry it off!
Warm up… carefully!
If your ears still hurt or if the other effects caused by the cold don’t go away on their own, try warming up your ears by rubbing them gently. You can also do it by using a hot towel or infrared lamp, but never hot water! Make sure your ear doesn’t get too hot.
Did you know? Using heat to treat an ear infection can actually make things worse!