The number of Americans who are born deaf is quite small — about 0.01 percent of births nationally. Yet, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), nearly 20 percent of Americans suffer from some level of difficulty, up to and including complete loss of their hearing.
That huge gap between those born unable to hear and those that lose that precious sense over time makes a powerful statement we should all take to heart: Our ability to hear is under attack. And, while there are many causes of hearing loss and deafness caused by genetics and health concerns beyond our control, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that “half of all cases of hearing loss are avoidable through primary prevention.”
That’s a powerful set of statements. Together, they mean that, over the course of our lives, one of every five of us — roughly 65.4 million Americans — will develop some level of hearing loss significant enough to impact daily life. And, about half of that number — nearly 33 million people — could avoid this fate.
So, naturally, the question is: what can you do to preserve and protect your and your family’s hearing? Following are 11 tips designed to help you do just that. So, listen up!
Get you and your children vaccinated
A number of infectious and communicable diseases can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss. Among these are several that have been all but eradicated thanks to conscientious vaccination protocols:
It’s especially important for pregnant mothers (or women who may become pregnant) to receive the rubella vaccine as early as possible since maternal rubella can lead to hearing loss in the unborn child.
Even the common flu can potentially have a negative effect on hearing if it’s accompanied by high sinus pressure that invades and impacts the inner ear, even causing perforation of the eardrum or worse.
There are countless reasons why it’s vital to take advantage of available vaccinations. Protecting your hearing is one more.
Get head colds and sinus infections treated ASAP
As noted above, high pressure and a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum can lead to temporary or even permanent hearing loss. This fluid buildup (called otitis media) is one of the leading causes of hearing loss in early childhood, especially among individuals who suffer chronic ear infections. But, it can affect all ages.
Even if you think you just have a simple cold, if you’re dealing with strong, painful sinus pressure and/or you notice sounds are muffled in one or both ears, you should get checked out and follow your doctor’s treatment protocol. The longer the situation persists, the more likely it is that damage will occur.
Limit ototoxic drugs wherever possible
Many people don’t even realize that potential hearing loss is included as a known side effect of many prescription medications. This ototoxic effect is rare, but should certainly be kept in mind, especially since several of these medications are used commonly, even over-the-counter.
Examples of potentially ototoxic drugs include:
- NSAIDs like ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or aspirin (especially in high, prolonged doses, and especially in adult men)
- Quinine, a common ingredient in malarial treatments and also found in some tonic waters
- Some diuretics intended to treat heart problems and high blood pressure
- Certain antibiotics — mostly of the family known as aminoglycosides — often prescribed to treat kidney disease
- Certain antidepressants, including SSRIs like Paxil, Zoloft, and Prozac
- Some chemotherapy drugs, like cisplatin or bleomycin
In all these cases, if you are under a doctor’s care and are prescribed one or more of these medications, the potential benefits outweigh the possibility of adverse effects. However, monitor your own reactions to the drugs and reach out to your doctor if you notice any changes in your hearing after you begin treatment.
Protect your ears and head from injury
Head injuries and trauma from objects entering the ear canal are regrettably common causes of hearing loss that are completely avoidable.
Quite simply, don’t put anything in your ear beyond what’s required to gently clean the skin with a moist cotton swab or alcohol wipe. Be very mindful of young children with pencils, pins, nails, or anything else sharp that could potentially end up inside their ear canal. (And, of course, don’t do something that naive yourself, either!)
When playing contact sports, riding on bicycles, or operating a motorcycle or ATV, always wear an adequate helmet that protects your ears.
If you do suffer a head injury, and especially if you’re diagnosed with a concussion, it is vital you have your hearing thoroughly checked as part of your recovery procedure. The bones, muscles, and nerves that make up your inner ear and make hearing possible are incredibly small and thin. They are prone to damage under traumatic conditions. And, if they heal poorly, negative effects on hearing can quickly become permanent.
Take all necessary precautions when scuba diving as the pressure of swimming far below the surface of the water can cause physical damage to the inner ear.
A similar effect can occur when changing altitude drastically above sea level, but — short of stunt pilots and skydivers — it’s not easy to move fast enough between altitudes to do real damage. Most of us will only experience a brief “popping” sound and momentary discomfort while driving, flying, or riding an elevator.
We all generally recognize that plugging our earbuds in and cranking the volume all the way up is unwise. And, if we pass by a construction worker using a jackhammer, or a fire truck blasting its siren, we’ll instinctively cover our ears because those sounds can cause physical pain. But, for most of us, painfully loud noises are relatively rare.
The biggest danger noise presents to our hearing, however, is when it’s loud enough to cause damage, but not loud enough to cause pain. According to the WHO, “1.1 billion young people (aged between 12–35 years) are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational settings.”
But, how do you know what sort of noises in your environment could be dangerous? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “If you need to raise your voice to be heard at an arm’s length, the noise level in the environment is likely above 85 dB in sound intensity and could damage your hearing over time.”
That can include a crowded room where many people are talking at once, your car radio after a particularly good song came on, the incoming subway train you’re waiting for, and the lawnmower you need to use this weekend. In fact, it involves a lot of what we’re exposed to day in and day out.
Much of this exposure is out of our control. However, to whatever extent you can control your environment and habits, try to avoid loud noises altogether. If you know you’re going to be exposed to loud noise, especially for a prolonged period (like when you’re mowing the lawn), wear adequate ear protection. And, when using headphones, keep the volume at or around 60 percent of full.
Get your hearing checked regularly
Finally, don’t ignore having your hearing checked regularly as part of your overall health and wellness routine. Another very common cause of hearing loss we haven’t discussed yet is presbycusis, the degeneration of sensory cells that often comes with age. While it’s certainly not guaranteed, it’s very likely all of us will eventually experience at least some loss of hearing as we get older.
Presbycusis can sneak up on you. It happens slowly over a long period of time, and it happens at different rates to different people. You may even find one ear struggling more than the other one at some point. Because of its slow rate of progression, however, we often don’t think about it as a high priority health issue. However, from the standpoint of maintaining a high quality of life and enjoyment, receiving treatment for hearing loss can make a big difference in your life.
Audiologists recommend getting a hearing check annually. This is especially important for the very young — whose hearing problems may go undiagnosed, negatively affecting development, because they cannot yet effectively communicate — and adults over 55 who are most likely to be experiencing age-related hearing loss. Likewise, you should see an audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist any time you experience an illness or accident that may impact your hearing as described in the sections above.
If the cost of an annual hearing checkup presents a problem, you should consider joining the Wellness Complete discount program, which can provide significant discounts at a national panel of participating audiologists. And, if you need to consider a hearing aid, the plan offers discounts on those as well.