The Ears Have It

The inside scoop on keeping your ears open to hearing loss.

Gradual hearing loss is common and even expected as you get older. However, though hearing loss is irreversible, there are ways to slow the impairment and things to do to improve your hearing.

If you find yourself having difficulty understanding people’s words – especially if there is background noise around you; or if you must frequently ask people to speak louder or to repeat themselves; turn up the volume on the radio, television or telephone; or avoiding social situations or conversations, you are likely dealing with some level of hearing loss.

What’s the Cause?

There are two main factors in hearing loss; heredity and damage to the inner ear. Other possible causes include earwax buildup, infection, or a ruptured eardrum. Any time earwax accumulation is to blame (it can cause hearing loss in all ages, it can be easily removed by a physician. Ruptured eardrums, on the other hand, are not fixed easily, and occur when your ears suffer sudden pressure changes, loud blasts, or trauma from an object such as a Q-tip.

Since you can do nothing about inherited hearing loss, what can you do about inner ear damage? Injury to your inner ear is often a normal part of aging. Some medications, including certain antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs may harm your inner ear. Temporary hearing problems such as ringing in your ears may be caused by high doses of aspirin, loop diuretics, anti-malarial medications, or various pain relievers. Additionally, certain illnesses that cause a high fever, including meningitis, may damage your inner ear.

While all these factors can lead to hearing damage, the number one cause of inner ear damage is long-term exposure to loud noises. These loud sounds cause the hairs or nerve cells in the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in your inner ear, to wear down. When this happens, signals aren’t transmitted properly to the brain, causing muffled sounds. And though the noise may only last an hour or two, the damage is permanent. Jobs such as construction, farming, and factory work expose workers to loud noises for prolonged periods of time. Other noise factors that contribute to inner ear damage include firearms, snowmobiling, fireworks, motorcycles, or loud music. These days, MP3 players can cause damage when the volume is turned up loud enough.

Treatment Is Available

The inability to hear well can significantly affect your quality of life. Unfortunately, most people who have hearing loss live with it for years without seeking treatment or never get help at all. Getting the treatment you need for your hearing loss will give you greater self-confidence, improve your relationships with those around you, and give you a more positive outlook on life.

If you are experiencing hearing loss at any level, contact your doctor for a hearing evaluation. If necessary, you may be referred to a hearing specialist (audiologist). Treatment for hearing loss will depend on its cause and severity. It may be as simple as removing earwax buildup or using an over-the-ear amplifying microphone that can be purchased at electronic stores. For more severe hearing loss, you may require a hearing aid or even a cochlear implant, which replaces the damaged inner ear parts.

Maintain Your Ears

So what can you do to prevent hearing loss? Start by protecting your ears. Whether on the job, playing drums, or setting off fireworks, wear earplugs made of plastic or rubber. This will reduce the sound to an acceptable level. Also, lower the volume on your music and take breaks from prolonged loud noise. You should also schedule regular hearing tests if you’re exposed to excessive noise levels, as early detection of hearing loss can help prevent further damage.

It’s Getting Louder

Wondering when to head to quieter ground? Here are a few sounds that put your hearing in the danger zone.

Whisper: 30 decibels
Normal Conversation: 60 decibels
Washing Machine: 70 decibels

Heavy City Traffic/Hair Dryer/Lawn Mower: 85–90 decibels
Motorcycle: 95 decibels
Snowmobile/Hand Drill: 100 decibels
Rock Concert/Chain Saw: 110 decibels

Likely to Damage Hearing
Ambulance Siren: 120 decibels
Jet Engine Taking Off: 140 decibels
12-gauge shotgun: 165 decibels
Rocket Launch: 180 decibels
Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and American Tinnitus Association

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