By the time average American adults are in their 50s, half of them have experienced some amount of hearing loss. While many of these people might be quick to blame their condition on exposure to loud sounds or occupational hazards in their workplace, the truth is that more common causes might be the culprit, and a number of them are easily reversed. Here’s how:
1. Clogged Ears
One out of 20 people sees a doctor annually to have built-up earwax removed, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery (AAO HNS). Explains Dr. Peter Roland, the chairman of the University of Texas’ department of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery, “We can hear with as little as three to five percent of the ear canal clear, so it may take years for enough wax to accumulate to stifle hearing. But if water gets in — while you shower, for example — it can cause wax to swell and create a blockage.” If that happens, patients may worry that they’ve suddenly become deaf. Fortunately, however, this blockage can be cleared, and hearing can be completely restored.
If your ears are clogged, it can cause sensations of pain, dizziness and/or full feelings in the ears. If you have any of these symptoms, you should visit a doctor or otolaryngologist. The AAO has approved three treatments for blockages — dissolving wax solutions, manual removal (using instruments such as suctioning devices) and irrigation (the use of jets of saline solution or water in the ear canal to break up the wax and allow for drainage). Your doctor can tell you which method is best for you.
But one thing you shouldn’t do is use a cotton swab. “It may feel like you’re getting the gunk out, but you can push the wax deeper and cause an impaction,” states Dr. Rick Friedman of Los Angeles’ House Ear Clinic. While it’s good to clear blockages, not all ear wax should be removed as it provides a natural protection for the ear canal. If you do want to attempt to remove wax buildup yourself, Friedman suggests soaking a cotton ball in equal parts alcohol and white vinegar, tipping your head up, dabbing the ear and tilting your head back down to let it drain.
2. Undiagnosed Allergies
Blocked sinuses can also be a reason for hearing loss. These can be caused by sinus infections, colds and allergies. In these cases, the eustachian tube of the ear — the mechanism that regulates ear pressure — swells closed, pulling fluids into the ear. Undiagnosed allergies can appear to be a recurring cold that prevents ears from clearing, possibly causing them to be chronically blocked. If you identify and treat the hearing loss condition, you can cut down on allergy attacks and manage buildup of fluid and/or chronic congestion that can cause muffled hearing.
The average adult has three colds per year, each of which typically lasts between a week and 10 days. If you experience colds more often than this or have cold symptoms that last longer than two weeks, “that’s your cue that there’s something more going on than just a bad cold,” states Dr. Peter Roland. In these cases, you should ask your doctor to evaluate you for allergies.
High doses of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ibuprofen (at 800 mg or more three times daily) or aspirin (at more than 10 tablets daily) can produce a condition known as tinnitus — a ringing in the ears without any external sound source being present.
Even worse, NSAIDs can disable the ear’s protective hair cells, leaving ears more vulnerable to damage from sounds. Doctors note that a baby aspirin daily taken for heart health won’t cause tinnitus, but tolerance to NSAIDs varies by the person, and some people are sensitive at lower doses. If you experience ringing in your ears after taking these medications, talk to your doctor about possibly switching to acetaminophen, since it doesn’t affect hearing. Tinnitus is rarely permanent, so don’t worry if you’ve had it in the past or are presently experiencing it.
Some Basics to Know
Hearing loss generally develops slowly and is often the result of extended exposure to tens of thousands of high-decibel sounds over time. Even small home appliances can be at fault — many exceed the recommended safe-volume limit of 85 decibels, the equivalent noise level of street traffic in a city. Here are just a few of the appliances that can be harmful in this way:
— Hair Dryers
At their highest settings, hair dryers can reach 95 decibels. Even when they don’t go that high, close proximity to the ear can cause damage. It’s recommended to use lower speed settings, cut your drying time and if necessary, use earplugs to lower risk of damage to your ears. There are also low-noise hair dryers on the market that can reduce their sound levels by up to 75 percent.
— Coffee Grinders and Blenders
Some of these devices can exceed 88 decibels when in use. Try muffling their noise by wrapping a kitchen towel around their base when they’re in use.
— Garbage Disposals
While newer models of disposals are typically within safe limits, older models can be intolerably noisy. If you need to stand close by while one is in use, try wearing earplugs.
— Lawn Mowers
If you cut your lawn’s grass for an hour or two each week, the effect on your ears can add up. Try cutting the noise by wearing ear muffs or a hat with foam inserts while you work.
— MP3 Players
iPods and other music-playing devices can pump out unsafe levels of sound even when set to 50 percent of their maximum volume. Try maintaining a lower volume setting and limiting your use to one hour each day. If you’re in an environment where there’s lots of ambient sound, try using noise-canceling headphones.
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