If you’re like most of us, you take your hearing for granted. Your auditory system shows up ready for business each morning, and you think that as long as you don’t abuse it too badly, it’ll keep doing what it’s meant to do: Processing sounds and allowing you to be fully functional and vital.
But the reality is quite different.
The truth is, dozens of everyday situations and activities can gradually erode our hearing, and you’ve probably found yourself in several of them today. Eat This, Not That! Health consulted top doctors around the country who see this all the time. Here’s their advice on how you can take easy steps to protect your hearing—and ensure that well into your golden years, you’ll never miss a beat. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
“A lot of people will use objects like cotton swabs to try to remove wax from their ears. While they think they may be removing all the wax, usually a little will come out on the cotton swab (or other object) and the rest gets pushed deeper into the ear canal,” says Jordan Glicksman, MD, an otolaryngologist at Harvard Medical School. “If enough builds up, it can block off sound conduction to the ear like an earplug.”
He adds: “I’ve also seen patients with all sorts of other problems from using these devices to remove wax, ranging from ear infections caused by small cuts in the ear canal skin to perforated tympanic membranes (ruptured ear drums) and worse.”
The Rx: Never put anything into your ear canal that’s sharper than your elbow. “I generally recommend against my patients sticking objects in their ears because of these and other potential complications,” says Glicksman. To safely clean your ears, realize that ear wax is designed to flow out naturally. Just wash your ears with soap and water in the shower, when you’re shampooing. If you have impacted wax, see a medical professional to have it removed.
Smoking is a major risk for cardiovascular disease. Tobacco smoke contains hundreds of toxins which weaken the walls of blood vessels throughout the body, which can lead to catastrophic results including stroke, heart attack and hearing loss. High blood sugar, a.k.a. diabetes, similarly weakens those vessels. “Vascular disease from poor lifestyle choices can predispose you to early hearing loss,” says Ariel B. Grobman, MD, an otolaryngologist based in South Florida. “Healthy life choices make a difference — even in your hearing.”
Anthony Kouri, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center, concurs: “Nicotine causes vasoconstriction of blood vessels all over the body. This also applies to the inner ear. The more you smoke, the more restricted the blood flow, and the greater the hearing loss.”
The Rx: Reduce your risk of blood vessel damage by quitting smoking, not drinking alcohol in excess, and warding off diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly. If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, see your doctor regularly and comply with their recommendations, including any medication regimen.
Losing your hearing isn’t always gradual, and sometimes quick intervention can make all the difference. “Hearing loss may be sudden in nature, often for unknown reasons,” says Grobman. “Receiving urgent care from a qualified otolaryngologist (ENT) is of utmost importance to measure the hearing loss and to intervene with medication to recover hearing or prevent further loss.”
The Rx: If you’re experiencing hearing loss, don’t go into denial; that can worsen the condition. See a doctor ASAP. “The most important symptom that should cause you to see a physician immediately is any form of sudden hearing loss,” says Tim Trine, PhD, an audiologist and CTO of Eargo. “A sudden sensorineural hearing loss is usually idiopathic (or of unknown cause), but should be evaluated and treated by a physician as a medical emergency. There is a critical window where treatment to restore hearing is the most effective.”
Taking a header off your bike might not scramble your brain, but it could fracture bones near your ear, leading to hearing loss. “Motorcycle crashes can lead to trauma and temporal bone fractures, especially in Florida, where drivers don’t need to be wearing a helmet by law,” says Grobman.
The Rx: Whether you get around town on greased lightning or a Giant BMX, “Wear a helmet, even in states where it is not the law,” says Grobman.
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Airplane noise might be the most damaging of dull roars. “While it depends on a number of factors including the size of the aircraft, planes can be loud enough to potentially damage your hearing,” says Christina Callahan, Au.D, an audiologist and head of clinical audiology at Lively. In the air, ambient sound can reach 85 to 100 decibels, as loud as a lawnmower or noisy room; levels above 85 decibels are considered harmful.
The Rx: You can help preserve your hearing with seat selection and noise protection. “Some areas of the plane may be quieter than others, typically the front if the engines are on the wings. But the best bet to avoid potential damage is to wear protection on your ears such as noise-cancelling headphones,” says Callahan. “Another thing to think about is when the jet engines are loud, the natural reaction may be to raise the level of your headphones when listening to music or watching a movie. But the risk is raising the volume to a dangerously high level, which could also damage your hearing.” Pop in earplugs instead.
“Research indicates that prolonged exposure to noises above 85 decibels can damage hearing permanently,” says Kouri. “This is the level of noise from heavy traffic. If you work in a factory or in construction around loud tools, chances are you’re doing permanent hearing damage — close proximity to a jackhammer is 120 decibels, and the noise from a semi truck is 90 decibels.”
How loud is 85 decibels, anyway? You can measure the noise around you with a smartphone app like the well-reviewed Decibel X.
The Rx: “Protect yourself by wearing earplugs while working in loud environments,” says Kouri.
“Certain drugs are considered ototoxic, or damaging to the ears,” says Kouri. “Medications including some antibiotics, blood pressure medications, chemotherapy drugs, and high doses of aspirin can all be ototoxic. Older patients who take multiple medications are at greater risk for experiencing hearing difficulties.”
The Rx: Talk with your doctor about whether any of the medications you’ve been prescribed come with the risk of hearing loss. “There are often alternative medications, and this should be discussed with your doctor,” says Kouri.
“Diet impacts our health in more ways than we realize,” says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. “The Journal of Nutrition published a study in 2018 looking at the impact of three different diets on hearing health. The findings suggest that women who eat a healthy balanced diet have lower risks of hearing loss. While nutrition can be protective of hearing, it can also impact hearing in a negative way. Malnutrition affects every organ in the body, including the inner ear.”
The Rx: Eat a balanced diet that emphasizes protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
“One of the reasons hearing loss due to noise exposure is largely on the rise is due to headphone use,” says Meryl Miller, Au.D, an audiologist with Audiological Consultants of Atlanta. “If the music in your headphones can be heard by someone in the same room as you, it is too loud.”
The Rx: “Turn down the volume, and if you can’t control the volume, use hearing protection,” she adds. “Hearing damage that results from loud sounds is all about, ‘How loud and how long?’ Ask yourself, how loud is the music or other noise, and what is the duration of exposure? Go ahead and turn up the volume for your favorite song and rock out — just remember to turn it back down when the song ends.”
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That ringing in your ears is an alarm that’s warning you to see a doctor and get it checked out. “If you’re occasionally exposed to high-level noise and notice tinnitus — ringing, buzzing or other sounds in the ear — or changes in your hearing in the days following the noise exposure, it’s time to make an appointment with an audiologist,” says Miller.
“Potassium has been found to play a vital role in hearing,” says Richards. “It works to aid the middle ear in converting sound to signals for the brain.”
The Rx: As part of your balanced diet, include foods that are rich in potassium, such as bananas, beans, potatoes, oranges, avocados, beets and spinach.
“Occupational and recreational noise exposure is a great risk to hearing,” says Tim Trine, PhD, an audiologist and CTO of Eargo. “Protecting your hearing while mowing the lawn, riding motorcycles or snowmobiles, or attending a concert is essential.”
The Rx: “Inexpensive foam earplugs are extremely effective form of hearing protection when combating occupational and recreational noise. Be sure to wear them properly.”
Trine agrees that turning down the volume while on your headphones is crucial to protecting your hearing. “People damage their hearing without realizing it by turning up the volume to combat background noise,” he says.
The Rx: “Switching from ‘open’ ear buds to occluding style earbuds or circumaural headphones can help you turn down the volume,” he says. “They block the competing background noise that causes a lot of people to turn up the volume so they can hear their music above the din of the subway or the crowded street they’re walking on.”
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You know you should get your teeth checked every year and your colon every ten. Add your hearing to your list of necessary exams — especially if you’re noticing any changes. “Be sure to get your hearing checked from an audiologist if you notice that you are suffering from hearing loss,” says Trine. “The average person waits seven years before seeking help due to the cost and stigma associated with hearing aids.”
The Rx: According to Trine, telltale signs that your hearing might be starting to decline are: constantly turning up the volume on the TV or radio, asking people to repeat themselves often, having trouble hearing in noisy environments like parties, restaurants, cars or planes, difficulty hearing on the phone, signs of tinnitus (ringing, hissing, or roaring sounds in the ears), and having to see a person’s face when they’re speaking in order to understand better. “Hearing loss also comes naturally with age,” he notes. “Forty-eight million Americans — a shocking 14 percent of those between the ages of 45-64 — suffer from disabling hearing loss.”
Blaring music into your ears via headphones is the most infamous cause of hearing loss. But several of the doctors we spoke with emphasized that many other sources of everyday noise exposure can add up, causing hearing loss — from video-game headphones to power tools. “The most common cause of hearing loss is occupational noise exposure. However, recreational causes are on the rise, mostly fueled by consumer electronics,” says Oliver Adunka, MD, director of otology, neurotology and cranial base surgery at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Also, mowing the lawn, visiting rock concerts, and other relatively benign-appearing activities are often the cause for hearing loss.”
The Rx: Realize that you can seriously damage your hearing while having fun (or distinctly not, during household chores) — and when in doubt, pop in those earplugs. “Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible — and preventable,” says Adunka. “Cumulative noise exposure can slowly progress with repeated exposures. Audiologists and otolaryngologists recommend limitations on volume and exposure times, since both have been associated with hearing loss. Equally important is the use of protective gear including ear muffs or plugs. These can typically reduce noise levels so that no permanent damage can be done.”
Not to make you paranoid, but the world around you is conspiring to ruin your hearing. “Hearing damage is a common issue for many of my patients. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that it’s not uncommon to develop hearing loss from simple daily activities, whether you’re at home, out in the yard, at the office, or just out and about,” says Christopher Dietz, MD, area medical director for MedExpress Urgent Care in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Remember that any noise over 85 decibels warrants the use of protection. A noisy restaurant or heavy traffic, for example, is usually about 85 decibels and can cause hearing problems if you’re exposed to it for long periods of time.”
The Rx: “Limiting the amount of time spent in noisy environments is an easy way to take a proactive approach to prevent hearing loss,” says Dietz. “If you’re in an environment that’s about 85 decibels, for example, you should limit your exposure time to that noise to about eight hours. For every three decibels over 85, you should reduce your time spent by one-half. So if you’re in a space that’s at about 91 decibels, you should limit your time there to two hours.”
The open office trend was launched by companies to save money. But that’s come at the expense of their employees’ productivity — and hearing. “While there are many benefits to open-office environments, they come with unique challenges, like uncontrolled chatter, impromptu conversations, decreased productivity due to constant distractions, and even potential hearing damage,” says Dietz. “A large office often has a noise level of about 50 decibels, which not only is more than enough to cause significant distraction but also may result in workers plugging in their headphones and turning up their music. This can cause hearing problems if the volume is loud enough to drown out office noise.”
The Rx: “I encourage my patients to set a volume limit on their phone or computer, which can help prevent their hearing loss and allows them to maintain a safe listening level,” says Dietz. “Unoccupied conference or meeting rooms can also provide privacy and quiet away from a noisy cubicle to avoid popping in those headphones and turning up the music.”
“Concerts typically have noise levels between 100 and 115 decibels – well over the recommended 85 decibels,” says Dietz. “While performers typically use earplugs or similar forms of protection onstage, audience members often expose themselves to loud levels of noise by choice.”
The Rx: “Using a quality pair of earplugs can help protect you from temporary hearing loss without compromising on sound, as well as standing away from the front of the stage and speakers where noise levels are typically the loudest,” he says.
“Many gyms play overhead music or have their TV volume at loud levels, which means your own music needs to be even louder if you want to hear it,” says Dietz.
The Rx: “I encourage my patients to bring a pair of earplugs along if their gym or fitness class plays loud music, to help prevent hearing loss,” he adds. “Trying to tune it out with other music may actually cause more damage.”
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“Using hearing protection and removing yourself from a potentially damaging source of sound when no protection or ill-fitted protection is available are the best ways to avoid a noise-induced hearing loss,” says Gayla Guignard, a certified speech language pathologist, audiologist and chief strategy officer for AG Bell Academy for Listening and Spoken Language. “Hearing protection, in the form of earplugs, is readily available at a local pharmacy and is inexpensive. Custom hearing protection is an additional option, and in some cases provides better protection than earplugs.”
The Rx: We’ve tested Mack’s Earplugs against New York City early-morning jackhammers and construction noises and can vouch for their effectiveness.
A warm-weather vacation or Southern relocation comes with the promise of deep-water adventuring. Scuba and cave diving are booming in popularity, but both can cause hearing loss if best practices aren’t followed. “Scuba diving without being able to clear pressure in the ears properly can lead to pressure buildup and hearing loss,” says Grobman.
The Rx: “Scuba divers must never descend without carefully equalizing pressure in the ears,” says Grobman. “Divers should use decongestants or avoid diving on days when they are having nasal issues. If pressure issues are encountered while under water, they should safely and carefully make their way to the surface with the help of a partner.” And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.