Protecting Your Hearing

General Medical

Dr. Sam Hay

Losing your hearing is often seen as a right of passage – it goes hand in hand with getting older. But in fact, a lot of hearing loss experienced by Australians results from our loud and noisy modern lives.

All of us will suffer some hearing loss from time to time, like when we climb a mountain, take a plane flight, or get an ear infection. But these causes are short lived. At the other extreme is permanent hearing loss. It gets more common as we get older, as only 3% of 30 year olds suffer hearing loss, whilst nearly 50% of over 65's suffer the debilitating condition.

And the rates of hearing loss are on the rise. This is a combination of an aging population, with the realisation that lifestyle choices are putting our hearing at risk.

So just what can we do to reduce our risk of hearing loss?

1. This is the big one. Protect your ears when you’re young

Experts believe that over one third of hearing loss is completely and utterly preventable! All you have to do is protect your ears against repeated loud noise. Whether you enjoy rock concerts, dance parties, or simply turn the dial up on your headphones – these simple ‘lifestyle’ choices when you’re young are damaging your ears for the long haul. Then there’s occupational exposure from engines, machines, factories, or on-the-job tool use. They all contribute to ‘occupational noise exposure’, and can be incredibly damaging for your ears. Excessive noise induces hearing loss by direct damage to the delicate cochlear structures (the hearing parts of the inner ear and brain), plus metabolic overload due to overstimulation.

Bottom line? Protect your ears when you’re young. Wear earplugs, turn the volume down, and protect your ears on the job. Pick good quality earplugs or industrial ear protection that is certified to protect your ears in the environment you need. Not sure where to turn? Occupational Health and Safety guidelines clearly stipulate safe noise levels for all occupations and workplaces. Plus, they offer guidance on the minimum level of ear protection required. Ask your boss, union, workplace safety officer, or professional organisation for more information.

2. Loud bangs are bad too

Like shootin’ guns or watching fireworks? Well a short blast of loud noise also can cause severe to profound hearing loss or pain, even with only one exposure. This usually involves noises greater than 120 to 155 dB. Think you’re at risk? Then get that hearing protection on!

3. Manage skin conditions

Many people don’t realise that common skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis effect the ears. Dry, irritated, or inflamed skin causes build up of mucky skin in the outer ear canal, plus, it increases the risk of infection. This can all lead to blockage of the outer ear canal and reduced hearing.

Bottom line? Look after the skin around your ears, see a skin specialist for expert advice, and use drops and creams to control the reactions.

4. Listen to your grandmother

“The smallest thing that should go in your ear is your elbow” my grandmother would frequently exclaim. And she’s right. A too common cause of hearing loss arises from trauma to the ear drum from over zealous cleaning with cotton-buds. People get adventurous; start digging for gold, and simply poke the cotton-bud through the ear drum. Whilst the damage can thankfully be mild, poke too hard, and you dislodge the fragile middle ear bones that connect the drum to the inner ear.

Bottom line? Listen to your grandmother! Your ears are self cleaning, and just don’t need you digging around to scoop out that ear wax.

5. But my ears really do fill up with wax

It’s true, some people just can’t clear their ear wax. It builds up and blocks the outer ear canal, reducing hearing. If this sounds like you, then what you really need is to soften the wax with wax-softening-drops. There are pharmacy options, but good old olive oil does the trick too! Two drops three times a week will keep the canal squeaky clean, but if wax continues to build, then see your doctor for a check. They may be able to do a syringe, or get an ENT (ear nose and throat) specialist to expertly remove the wax for you. What about those ear candle things? Waste of money in my opinion.

6. Avoid high dose aspirin

High dose aspirin (12+ tablets a day) can cause hearing loss, but thankfully, it’s reversible once you stop. In fact, regular use of standard dose aspirin, paracetamol, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs was also associated with some hearing loss, especially in over 50 year old blokes.

Bottom line? Don’t take high dose aspirin, and re-think whether you really need those extra pain killers each week.

7. Treat kid’s ear infections early

Middle ear infections effect most kids most years. Any hearing loss comes and goes over days and weeks. But the ear can still be filled with thick, tenacious fluid after the acute infection has been successfully treated – commonly called a ‘glue’ ear. This glue ear reduces hearing and can delay speech development, so it’s important not to ignore it. In three quarters of cases the glue ear resolves within four to six weeks, but with half of the rest, it never clears. If glue ear doesn’t clear kids need to see an ENT surgeon, who can insert ventilation tubes (or ‘grommets’) in the ear drum to allow drainage, aeration of the middle ear, and eventual resolution of any hearing loss.

Bottom line? See your GP to rule out a middle ear infection if colds and flus seem to drag on. Plus, get those ears checked if kids seem to be hard of hearing or struggling to talk.

8. Look after your ears when you go up, and down

‘Barotrauma’ occurs when sudden large changes in pressure occur across the ear drum, during activities such as diving or flying. Damage the drum or middle ear in this way, and your hearing will be effected. Usually, it recovers completely, but sustain a major barotrauma, and hearing can be reduced permanently. A small canal called the Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. It’s job is to equalise the pressure, and therefore protect the middle ear. The Eustachian tube opens and closes with yawning, talking, swallowing, or ‘popping’ of the ears.  Most of the time this process works perfectly, but if the tube has any swelling in it from conditions such as colds, flus, or pregnancy, then the pressure doesn't’t equalise and barotrauma can result. Sometimes people just don’t equalise their ears fast enough: planes climb or descend too quickly, or divers get lazy as they change depths.

Bottom line? Learn how to pop your ears well and do it frequently! The simple technique is to hold your nose, close your mouth, and blow. Manage colds and flus quickly if you’re about to fly. If you have any ear pain or blocked sensation, then see your doctor before you fly to confirm there’s no risk to your ears.

9. Manage your hay fever

People who suffer allergies often experience chronic Eustachian tube dysfunction and mild hearing loss. Consider strategies to reduce trigger exposure, take anti-histamine tablets or steroid nose sprays, and see an ENT or allergist for further advice.

10. Be careful of cold water

Regular exposure to cold water during water sports such as swimming or surfing can cause deformities in the ear canal. Cold water stimulates the cartilage lining of the ear canals to grow lumps called ‘exostoses’. These can block the ear canal, cause wax build up, and lead to frequent outer ear infections – each of which can lead to hearing loss. Use wax plugs when in the water, alcohol based drops to dry out the canals afterwards, and consider surgical removal of the exostoses if they are large and increasing. This is all about protecting your hearing down the track!

BMedSci, MBBS(Hons), FRACGP, GDipSpMed, DCH
Director Your Doctors®


Please note: Dr. Sam's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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