Most of us grow up understanding the importance of preventive health care measures. Even small children know tips and tricks for keeping chronic illness at bay. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Get plenty of exercise and plenty of rest. Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands often.
But what about our hearing?
Most of us take our hearing for granted, especially when we’re young. We assume that good hearing health is common, easy to come by and keep. But statistics tell a very different story. An estimated 48 million Americans live with some form of hearing loss, while 50 million live with tinnitus or chronic ringing in the ears that, for many patients can become uncomfortable or even debilitating.
Fortunately, there are actions you and your family can do to protect your hearing and prevent hearing loss. With just a few small lifestyle changes, you can help keep your hearing healthy and clear for years to come.
1. Avoid Loud Music
Deep in the inner ear are microscopic hairs called cilia. These highly sensitive hairs sway and move in response to sound waves, sending the sensation of sound to our brains. Loud noise levels can permanently damage the cilia, bending and breaking them and scrambling the signals they send to our brain. That damage and the resulting auditory signal misfiring can result in noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus sounds.
Musicians and music enthusiasts are at particular risk for developing noise-related hearing loss and tinnitus. Attending loud concerts and listening to music with the volume turned up high can both damage the ears over time. But, how loud is too loud? If you have to raise your voice to be heard over the noise around you, it’s loud enough to damage your hearing. Regular concert-goers should invest in hearing protection devices, such as hearing aids. People who enjoy listening to music with headphones should use the 60/60 rule: set the volume at less than 60% and take breaks every 60 minutes.
2. Limit Other Loud Sounds in Your Life
Sometimes you can’t avoid the roar of an engine or the jackhammer on your street corner. But it’s best to limit the amount of time you’re around loud noises, since hearing damage can slowly accumulate over years of noise exposure.
In fact, some people are at particular risk for noise-induced hearing damage due to their high lifetime exposure. Men develop tinnitus more often than women, possibly because a greater percentage do jobs in loud environments and participate in loud activities. Of course, women who work in loud jobs or enjoy loud activities are at an equally high risk. Also, military personal and first responders with their regular exposure to gun shooting, explosions, sirens and loud machinery, have a heightened risk for noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. In fact, tinnitus is the leading service-related disability among U.S. veterans.
3. Wear Hearing Protection
Those who do work and play in loud environments should wear hearing protection. This can include:
- Earplugs: usually made of foam or rubber, earplugs are inserted into your ear canal and reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels. You can buy them off-the-shelf at your local pharmacy or have the custom-made to fit you.
- Earmuffs: earmuffs fit completely over your ears to block out damaging external noises, also by about 15 to 30 decibels. They must fit tightly over both ears to effectively block sound.
You can also wear earplugs and earmuffs together for even greater protection.
4. Avoid Cigarette Smoke
Research shows that tobacco can seriously damage the sensitive inner-workings of your ears. That goes for both smokers and those exposed regularly to second-hand smoke.
5. Clean Your Ears Carefully
A buildup of wax in your ears can muffle sound and lead to tinnitus symptoms. However, do not use a cotton swab to clean them out as they can push wax deeper in to your ear, or even perforate your eardrum and lead to painful and possibly irreversible damage. Instead, use an at-home irrigation kit to gently soften wax and wash it out. If wax becomes impacted in your ear, see your doctor for help removing it.
6. Check Medications for Hearing Risks
About 200 common over-the-counter and prescription drugs are ototoxic, meaning they can damage your hearing. These include aspirin, some antibiotics, certain statins and many cancer treatments. If you take prescription medications, talk to your doctor and pharmacist about possible side effects. Pay close attention to any hearing changes you experience throughout your treatment.
7. Have Your Hearing Tested
Your doctor can monitor your hearing over time, track changes and suggest interventions and treatments as needed. Along with regular hearing checks, be sure to see your doctor if you have a sudden change in your hearing. It could be a symptom of a more serious medical problem.