Our daily life is full of sights, sounds, and sensory experiences. When you lose the ability to engage in one of those, your wellbeing can be at risk. Hearing correctly allows you to enjoy music, chat with a friend, and listen to nature. Hearing is also important for safety, like when crossing streets, entering an unknown area, or for potential crimes.
One of our goals as humans should be to protect our ears. You want to avoid losing any hearing if you have normal hearing, and you want to avoid worsening hearing loss if you already have some. In most cases, prevention and knowledge are key.
One in six Americans have hearing loss. High frequency sounds are usually the first to be affected. The brain will receive less information if you can’t hear things, which makes it harder to distinguish speech.
Hearing loss can happen with exposure to loud noises, earwax buildup, medication side effects, infection, and even transportation. The loss can be temporary or permanent, and can be sudden or gradual.
Environmental risks for hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss is technically preventable. This type of hearing loss occurs with repeated or sudden exposures to loud sounds. Tiny hair cells inside the ear help us to hear, and they can become damaged by loud noises. These hair cells cannot be replaced and do not regenerate once lost, so as you could imagine, it’s imperative to maintain healthy hearing practices.
Harmful sounds can happen in concerts, sporting events, and crowded areas in a small space. Visiting or living in a busy city, dining in a noisy restaurant, or working in a noisy workplace are culprits, as well. Workplaces with daily loud sounds can include farms, factories, woodworking shops, and mechanic garages. Keeping the radio loud in a vehicle or frequently using headphones puts people at risk for hearing loss.
Sounds are measured in decibels. A typical conversation registers at around 60 decibels, while a jet taking off to fly is 125 decibels. It’s recommended that you should limit your exposure to sounds at or above 100 decibels to no more than 15 minutes. Limit sounds at or above 110 decibels to no more than 1 minute.
The goal is to be hearing-responsible as often as you can. This would include reducing your exposure to loud sounds or wearing protective headgear. As much as people enjoy watching a new film in a booming movie theater, it may not be the safest place for your ears. You may already have experienced going to an event with large speakers and not being able to hear well for hours after. These environments can cause serious hearing loss.
Be mindful of situations that are taxing on your ears. If possible, arrange your seating at an event in the quietest room available. Don’t linger near speakers, stages, or machinery. Keep your car radio volume medium to low, and do the same if you have to wear any earbuds or headphones. Limit headphone use altogether.
You should opt in to wear noise-cancelling headphones if you are in a risky environment, especially one like a shooting range or construction zone. Doctors recommend wearing noise-cancelling earmuffs, earplugs, or both. Do not turn up the volume on your personal devices just to compensate for a loud setting, like when turning up your music while on the subway. This only adds loudness to loudness.
An abundance of earwax in the ear can act as a barrier to hearing. A buildup of too much wax in the ear canal is called an impaction. This can happen if the wax becomes hard or immobile, which is common in older adults. There are many causes of earwax buildup and according to Cedars-Sinai, these are some of the most common: bony blockage (osteoma or exostoses), swimmer’s ear (external otitis), eczema, autoimmune disease (like lupus), and a narrowed ear canal.
Once the wax is cleared away, the hearing loss can improve. This is a temporary hearing loss. To prevent this trouble, read the guide on how to clean your ears properly here.
The National Campaign for Better Hearing reviews how to protect your ears while flying on a plane as a customer or as an employee. At cruising altitudes, noise levels are around 85 decibels, but can be louder on older aircrafts. Exposure to this level for more than 8 hours a day can cause tinnitus or permanent hearing loss. You could wear earplugs for the whole flight or just for takeoff and landing.
A condition called “airplane ear” can happen from the stress exerted on your eardrum and middle ear when air pressures are out of balance. The Campaign states that yawning, swallowing, or chewing gum can prevent airplane ear during takeoff and landing. You can also use an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray 30-60 minutes before takeoff and landing. This can help to open the Eustachian tubes and equalize pressure on your eardrums.
Managing the Eustachian Tubes
The Eustachian tube is a narrow tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose. This tube has three jobs: protecting the middle ear from pathogens, ventilating the middle ear, and helping to drain secretions.
There are many things that can disrupt Eustachian tube function. A systematic review of dysfunction reveals that symptoms may be impaired hearing, pain, tinnitus, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and balance problems. Causes for dysfunction may be upper respiratory infection, allergic rhinitis or rhinosinusitis, and nasal septal deviation.
Managing your congestion can reduce inflammation to the Eustachian tubes. Patients may take antibiotics, decongestants, antihistamines, or nasal/oral corticosteroids. A pressure equalization technique to review with your doctor is the Valsalva maneuver. This is when you hold your nostrils and mouth closed while trying to blow air out. This can reopen the Eustachian tube.
Some medications can also cause hearing loss. Drugs that harm the ear and cause hearing loss are considered to be ototoxic. Ototoxicity is a risk for people taking certain medications for an extended time.
Ototoxic drugs damage the sensory cells required to hear and to balance. These sensory cells are inside the inner ear. Hearing can return to normal after you stop taking the medication; however, there is also a risk of permanent damage.
ASHA reports there are over 200 ototoxic medications on the market. Potentially harmful meds to discuss with your doctor are aspirin in large doses, some antibiotics, some chemotherapy drugs, loop diuretics, and some anti-inflammatory drugs. You should seek a safer substitution med, if available. If able, you should exclude ototoxic drugs from your pain relief plan. The pros of a life-saving medicine may outweigh the cons of hearing loss. Your individual health goals should be discussed with your healthcare team.
To protect your hearing, you want to limit exposure to loud sounds, practice safe traveling, take care of any sinus infection, wear earplugs, manage earwax, and know the side effects of your medications. Staying informed and prepared will help you on your hearing journey. Hear.com is happy to help you prevent hearing loss from occurring, and also to correct hearing loss that already exists.