30 Million Americans Have Hearing Loss: Learn How to Protect Your Hearing
If you’ve been taking your hearing ability for granted, you wouldn’t be the only one. But, you should know that hearing loss is often permanent and protecting your hearing should be taken seriously.
Here are 7 tips to help you take care of your ears and guard against hearing loss:
1. Literally protect your ears
Hearing loss can be a result of many things, one of them being exposure to loud noises. Approximately 15% of noise-induced hearing loss in the US is due to overly loud sound environments in the workplace or in social settings. If your occupation regularly requires you to be exposed to loud noises, such as in construction, your employer should be providing you with hearing protection, like mufflers or ear plugs.
Protecting your hearing is also important during any leisure activities, such as music concerts. It might not look cool to be sporting a pair of ear plugs at a rock gig but your future 60-year-old ears will thank you for it (alternatively, stand further away from the speakers).
2. Keep yourself fit and healthy
Since your ears are connected to the rest of your body, it should come as no surprise that poor overall health can have an impact on your hearing, too. Hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease can play a role in hearing damage, while elevated blood sugars and diabetes are also associated with an increased risk of hearing loss.
This naturally leads us to the topics of diet and exercise. Vitamin B12, potassium, and magnesium are important for healthy hearing. These vitamins and minerals can be found in foods like whole eggs, fish, lentils, spinach, nuts, and seeds. Physical exercise gets your blood pumping and, in addition to benefiting your general cardiovascular health, also gets blood circulating around your ears, helping them to stay healthy.
3. Limit alcohol and quit smoking
Although this is related to keeping fit and healthy, alcohol and cigarettes deserve a paragraph of their own. Heavy drinking is associated with hearing loss, as is smoking. Smoking has been found to be significantly linked to an increased risk of sensorineural hearing loss, accelerating the effects of any age-related hearing loss. There are several pathways that smoking may damage hearing, including the direct toxic effects of nicotine on the cochlea, reduced oxygen supply to the ear’s hair cells, or toxin damage to the ear’s circulatory system.
Heavy alcohol consumption can cause damage to the brain areas involved in processing hearing. This means even if your ears are in top notch condition, any sounds they receive will have a harder time making sense to your brain. However, excessive drinking can also damage your ears themselves. Alcohol is a toxin with the potential to destroy inner ear hair cells, which are crucial for detecting sound. Once these hair cells are gone, they’re gone for good.
4. Stress less
Easier said than done; however, reducing your stress offers a multitude of benefits. Chronic stress has been associated with tinnitus, a phantom ringing/buzzing/whooshing in your ears. It is thought that stress and anxiety cause a physiological response in the body that results in reduced blood flow to the ears. Those fragile inner ear hair cells need a healthy supply of oxygen and nutrients to remain functional. Stress can also lead to hypertension, which we already know is not beneficial for healthy hearing.
You may want to think about how you can lower the stress in your life. This might be through delegating certain tasks to others, whether at work or in the home, practicing meditation, treating yourself to a monthly pamper session, or starting a daily fitness routine.
5. Check if any of your medications are ototoxic
Ototoxic describes substances that are toxic and damaging to the ear. There are over 450 drugs that are linked to causing or exacerbating hearing loss and tinnitus. In most cases, the hearing effects of an ototoxic medication is reversible once you stop taking it; however, some drugs may cause permanent damage. In addition to many others, ototoxic drugs include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
- chemotherapy drugs
- anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications
- blood pressure drugs
Often, the ototoxic effects of these drugs depend on the dosage and duration that you’re taking the medication. If you’re concerned about the effect a medication is having on your hearing health, talk to your prescribing physician about a possible alternative.
6. Don’t stick things in your ear
It sounds like an odd thing to say, but one study investigating Q-tip-related ear injuries in children over a 20-year period found that almost three-quarters of cases were associated with ear cleaning. This means if you’ve ever been guilty of trying to dig out a blob of earwax with a Q-tip, hair pin, or any other long, thin object, you wouldn’t be the only one. However, experts warn that this carries an unnecessary risk of injuring your ear’s structures, causing an infection, or getting a foreign object lodged in there. In severe cases, rupturing your inner ear structures with a Q-tip can lead to permanent deafness and even facial paralysis. Not only that but sticking a Q-tip into your ear canal often only serves to push the earwax in further.
Earwax is actually a cleaning product in itself, catching bacteria and debris in the canal. It also naturally migrates to the opening of your ear where it can eventually and easily be washed away without you having to ram a pen in there. If you have issues with a build-up of earwax, also known as cerumen impaction, your hearing specialist or family physician can perform an ear lavage, which uses water to gently flush out the offending blob.
7. Know the signs of hearing loss
The sooner you can identify hearing loss, the sooner you can get tested and treated. Common signs of hearing loss include:
- difficulty picking out words in conversation, particularly when there’s background noise
- frequently needing to ask people to repeat themselves
- being told you often have the television or radio volume up too loud
- feeling like you want to withdraw from social situations because it’s too difficult to follow conversation
- hearing a ringing, buzzing, or whooshing sound that no one else around seems to hear (tinnitus)
How Often Should I Have a Hearing Test?
It’s important to keep up with regular health checks for your eyes, teeth, blood pressure, cholesterol, and your ears are no different.
Newborns are offered a screening test in hospital shortly after birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that hearing screening should be conducted at certain checkpoints throughout the school years:
- when starting school
- at least once at 6, 8, and 10 years old
- at least once during middle school
- at least once during high school
Once you’re no longer school-aged, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association advocates a hearing test at least once a decade up to 50 years of age. Thereafter, the recommendation is a screening every 3 years. However, if you’re over the age of 60 or have risk factors for hearing loss, the advice is to get tested annually. Talk to your hearing health specialist about how often they recommend you to have your hearing checked based on your specific circumstances.