Take the Time to Think About Your Long-Term Hearing

Since 2008, the American Academy of Audiology has sponsored October as Audiology Awareness Month. The effort is a way to enhance awareness about hearing health, especially the need to embrace hearing protection by those who are regularly exposed to noisy environments.

Now’s the time to think about whether you’ve noticed any changes in your hearing over the summer. If you’re over 60, it’s also a great time to schedule a hearing exam. Especially if you haven’t had one since who knows when?

Hearing loss is usually a slow-moving phenomenon. Unless you suffer an accident or a disease that damages your hearing, you are most likely to have had your hearing slowly degrade over the years, especially the high range of the sound spectrum. The process is so slow that it’s actually easy to compensate for without realizing it.

This is especially true if, over the years when working (construction, bartending, etc.) or having fun (concerts, four-wheeling, etc.), your ears have been subject to loud noise. The damage can accumulate and slowly make itself known later in life.

This is a really good reason, if you are younger, to start making ear protection part of your routine when going to a club or the shooting range. Any activity that produces a high-decibel environment is a long-term risk to your hearing. The fact is that hearing loss is becoming more common and an issue for more and more people earlier in life.

The rise of personal music devices and earbuds may be a contributing factor in this trend.

Use October to ponder your hearing and ways to protect it.

Summer’s End Brings Hearing Challenges

The transition from one season to the next can intensify seasonal allergies for many. And this can wreak havoc with your ears, both their hearing function and their acting as the mechanism that controls our sense of balance.

There are also some activities unique to autumn that, if not treated with preventive measures, can cause more lasting harm to the ears.

As far as allergies go, the increase in the air of certain pollens can make your body’s immune system kick into gear, thinking it’s under attack. This leads to fluid buildup and tissue inflammation, both of which can clog or constrict the ear canal and affect hearing. These can also throw off the functioning of the vestibular system that controls our sense of balance.

If your allergies are having a profound impact on your hearing or leading to vertigo—and common over-the-counter remedies are not doing the trick—then seeking medical attention is probably worth the effort.

Then there are some of the things we do in the fall that put our ears at risk. Hunting without ear protection is, well, not a good plan. There are plenty of older hunters who can probably confirm this.

And leaf blowers, chainsaws, and other yard maintenance equipment can push the decibel meter over 100—while 70 is where sounds become dangerous to ears. The fact is that every bit of excessive noise that ears are exposed to can degrade them down the road. Invest in some kind of ear protection and, when in doubt, use it to cut down on the ramifications of noisy environments.

Let your ears have an easy transition to winter.

Been Awhile Since You Hit The Road?

For most of us, it’s been a long time—a good long while—since preparing for a vacation has been on the agenda. And maybe lockdown has hurt our traveling savvy.

If you use hearing aids, there are a few things that need to be prepped when you’re on the road. Dealing with an audio meltdown far from home is no fun.

So, if the life of your hearing aids is going to soon be more complicated than traveling between your ears and night table for months on end, here’s a checklist of things to think about:

  • If your hearing aid needs batteries, then you need batteries when traveling. You’re not getting away from it all just to go battery shopping.
  • And if you’ve got a fancy rechargeable hearing aid … then don’t forget the charger.
  • There may be some accessories or extra domes and wax guards that help your hearing aids function their best. Remember to pack them before you leave.
  • If you’re planning on getting wet at the beach or in the pool, then you’ll want to have the dehumidifier packed so you can properly dry out your hearing aids at night. Being active on vacation may mean that you’ll need to dedicate a little time to clean them, so make sure the cleaning kit is along for the ride.

Just like you’ll have to remember to bring your mask if you’re flying—they’re still required per CDC regulation—make sure you’ve got everything your hearing aids will need on vacation before heading out the door.

Protect Your Ears This Summer

One way to take the fun out of the summer is having a bout with an ear infection (or double the fun with both ears aflame). Any place where you can take a dip—the backyard pool, the municipal facility, the lake or ocean, a river or creek—can harbor bacteria that can get into your ear canal and cause the inflammation and irritation commonly known as swimmer’s ear.

The best option to avoid this common summer annoyance—especially if swimming is a big part of your routine—is to invest in a pair of swimming earplugs. They will keep the germs at bay.

There are a wide variety of off-the-shelf options available, while more serious protection custom-fitted models—which are molded to the contours of your very own ear canals—are an option that your hearing health professional can provide.

Anyone who’s planning to spend time in the water should consider using earplugs. This is especially true for kids who have a history of ear infections or who are currently using ear tubes to treat chronic issues. The same holds true for adults.

And though most modern hearing aids are designed to resist moisture, few are actually fully waterproof. That means you should take them out when going for a dip. Of course, taking hearing aids in and out is one way to create abrasions on the skin of the ear canal—another is inserting a Q-tip in your ear—which makes you more susceptible to come down with a case of swimmer’s ear. So, using swimming earplugs is an even better idea for anyone who uses hearing aids.

If time in the water—which is probably dirtier than you might think—is part of your summer plans, then seriously consider making swimming earplugs part of your seasonal gear.

Where’d That Sound Come From?

During a recent appointment, a patient asked us about hearing certain sounds – the occasional “snap, crackle, and pop” – that disappear as fast as they appeared. Quite the mystery for the patient, but we’d come across this phenomenon before!

You see, your ear has lots of parts. Little, intricate segments that do amazing things and almost always last a good, long time. But occasionally something can go awry.

For example, there’s the tympani muscle. It’s one of the ear canal’s real heroes, springing into action when something loud—like your chewing and the start of a clap of thunder—occurs that could damage other parts of the ear. The tympanic reflex muffles sound on its way to the inner ear (but sadly did not evolve to deal with fast-moving sound waves from gunshots).

But when the tympani is having a moment and engages in a muscle spasm, it can create a low rumbling sound that seems like it’s come out of nowhere.

Another small part of the ear that can occasionally go haywire is the Eustachian tube, another vital little piece of hardware. It creates a passageway between the ear canal and nasal cavity. When you swallow or chew gum to relieve ear-popping, this is the relief valve that brings relief by equalizing pressure.

But if it’s clogged up due to an ear infection, head cold, or allergies that relief is not only more difficult, but a crackling sound is often a side effect. Get rid of the congestion and the annoying sound goes away with it.

And then there’s good old earwax, which when accumulated in the wrong place—say, piled up against the eardrum—can cause a constant buzzing and ringing. Usually, this will rectify itself, but if not, don’t try to dig out deeply buried earwax, since doing so can cause more significant damage. Let a professional deal with it.

Those are just a few of the reasons why your head is filled with odd sounds.

Long Haul COVID and Hearing

These days, we’re finding that most of our patients have elected to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. It’s no wonder that the spread of the disease, at least here in the United States, is on the downslope and the attention among many researchers is turning to people who got the virus and never fully recovered.

Known as “COVID long haulers,” this minority of patients got over the life-threatening aspects of the infection but never shook all the symptoms completely. According to a recent study, completed in Britain and published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the estimate is that about 10 percent of COVID-19 patients fall into the long-COVID category.

But for some, symptoms included changes in their hearing, with the most common ear-related side effects for long haulers including tinnitus, vertigo, and hearing loss. More common long-COVID conditions include fatigue, breathing issues, joint pain, cognitive problems, and heart inflammation.

It is possible that issues with the circulatory system can cause subsequent issues in the ears, since they are very dependent on good blood flow (one reason why sufferers of diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss issues).

The problem is not only that the virus can attack parts of the body other than the lungs but also that the aftermath of treatment, especially intense hospitalization, can be traumatic.

Tinnitus, which is a persistent ringing sound, appears to be the most common hearing-related side effect. One study found that 40 percent of COVID patients already dealing with tinnitus reported that it got worse.

With this in mind, it is important to get to understand your current hearing abilities via a baseline evaluation, performed by a local hearing professional.

The plight of long haulers will continue to be studied. One encouraging development is that a significant number of patients have reported that their symptoms have markedly decreased after getting vaccinated (another medical development requiring further study).

Is Earwax Really So Evil?

Earwax has a bad rap, generally considered something to get rid of and, for some people, a downright disgusting aspect of being human.

But the fact of the matter is earwax is actually a pretty important part of your ears’ self-defense mechanism.

That sticky texture that freaks some folks out? All part of the design matrix. Because one thing earwax does is to throw up a roadblock to any dust, dirt, and debris that’s gotten into the ear canal. This is important before it gets too far into the ear canal and potentially causes damage to the crucial parts of the inner ear.

Earwax also has antibacterial and antifungal properties that help control ear infections, the bane of many a childhood (and sometimes adulthoods too). So, score another one for earwax, especially if you’re a swimmer since earwax helps stand guard against whatever might be in the water.

And there’s more. Earwax can also act as the inner ear’s airbag when there is trauma to the head. It basically helps keep parts of the ear from moving out of place when jolted.

So, given all of that, getting obsessive about “cleaning out” earwax is not advisable. This is especially true when using a cotton swab to dig it out, since it’s not at all uncommon for people to damage their ears doing this by pushing earwax into the middle and inner ear (where all the important parts are). Less severely, shoving all the earwax back into the ear often leads to blockage that can inhibit hearing and, in some cases, make infection more likely.

The best option is to not fiddle too much with your earwax. When it’s done doing its work, what’s leftover will make its natural journey to the outer ear, dry out on its own, and drift away naturally.

Giving the Gift of Hearing at the End of a Long Year

The last year—the lockdown—has been one of sacrifice, loss, and determination for us all. It’s called for adaptation and a recommitment to charitable giving as we’ve realized that we’re all in the same boat.

Back in December, we carried out our Gift of Hearing event. It was our third annual giveaway, which features open nominations of people who—because of their public service or unique circumstances—are not only facing hearing issues but are thought deserving of winning a free pair of premium hearing aids.

Like the United Way drop boxes that you’ll find at our office—ready for personal items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, razors that will be directed to food pantries and community shelters—the “Gift of Hearing” event was a way to “pay it forward” in these challenging times.

Given the realities of 2020, we couldn’t choose just one deserving recipient, so we picked two.

One of our winners was Vivian, who—prior to the COVID-19 lockdown—was renown for her volunteering. Known far-and-wide for her Italian cooking (and cookies too), her drive to stay busy was definitely sidetracked by the pandemic. So to was her access to her five great-grandchildren. But with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight, we hope her new hearing aids will help her fully embrace “getting back to normal.”

Our second winner was Earl, a man who has worked hard—like a farmer works hard—all his life. Raised in a farm family of thirteen, he was doing chores by the age of nine and now, well into his senior years, continues to work hard—including as a caregiver. We hope his new hearing aids make the many sporting events of his grandchildren, which he’ll be able to start attending again soon, even more enjoyable.

Any Quick Fixes for Hearing Loss?

Are there any ways to treat hearing loss and turn back the tide? Like athletes who suffer injuries, get treatment, and go through rehab until they eventually get back to where they were performance-wise (or at least close)?

Unfortunately, hearing loss is usually a lot more permanent than a sports injury. There are treatment options for some situations, but the fact is that most people lose their hearing because parts of the inner ear wear out — either as they age or when suffering exposure to excessive noise — and there is not currently any way to replace those tiny sections of the ear.

There is significant research beginning on the use of gene therapies to treat a wide range of hearing issues, but actual treatments are years away. Likewise, drug therapies are being explored — including clinical trials on treatments that seek to regrow the tiny hair cells that translate sound waves into electrical impulses to the brain — but they too are nowhere near being marketed.

In some cases of sudden hearing loss — usually, after exposure causes inflammation in the ear canal — steroid treatments, if quickly administered, can reduce the risk of permanent hearing loss.

Profound hearing issues can be treated with Cochlear implants — which surgically bypass the cochlea where those vital tiny hairs are located — but this is considered a significant procedure. Hearing aids are a required first option before Cochlear implants can be considered for adults.

A few specific conditions have corresponding procedures. Bone-anchored hearing systems (BAHAs) treat certain ear canal irregularities. A stapedectomy is the insertion of a prosthesis to replace bones in the middle ear that are vital to moving sound waves into the inner ear. Pressure equalization (PE) tubes can be inserted in cases of significant fluid buildup that is causing hearing issues.

But the reality is that most hearing loss does not have a “quick fix” other than learning to use a hearing aid to make up for issues deep inside the ear.

Being Low Stress Will Help Your Hearing

The bad news is that chronic stress can actually degrade your hearing.

Lucky that 2020 has been so stress-free.

Where’s the good news? Well, in this case, there isn’t any — though there are ways to mitigate this reality.

Hearing is not the only area of health that is negatively impacted by stress. This list is, unfortunately, long and well-known: a whole host of cardiovascular impacts (diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease), a weakened immune system, and numerous mental health effects are put at risk by stress.

And why is hearing health part of that list? Because the finely-tuned apparatus of the ear is very dependent on the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system. This is especially true of the sensory hair cells that are a critical part of the ear. Without them, electrical signals are not sent to the brain after sound waves have been collected by other parts of the ear. And without good blood flow, these hairs can die off — and unlike outer body hair, they don’t regenerate.

This is yet another reason to mitigate your stress level. Here are some tips (other than turning off the news):

  • Take regular breaks from stress-inducing situations. This will do wonders.
  • Even just 20 minutes of exercise a day is proven to lower chronic stress.
  • Did you know that when facial muscles put a smile on your face that signals are sent to the brain that release endorphins (our natural happy pills)?
  • Humans are designed to enjoy social interaction.
  • Forms of meditation — common across human cultures — positively impact the body.

It’s been a long year. For the sake of your hearing — and everything else — try to manage the stress as best you can.