Murray Grossan, MD, ear, nose and throat specialist, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. GrossanInstitute.com
Normal aging can undoubtedly impair hearing, but millions of Americans suffer unnecessarily from hearing and other ear problems that can largely be avoided.
Most common preventable causes of hearing loss — and my advice…
Loud noise is one of the primary causes of hearing loss. The vibrations from loud noise damage the sensory structures (hair cells) of the inner ear. This damage permanently impedes the hair cells’ ability to transmit the electrical signals to the brain that allow us to hear.
Exposure to loud noises before about age 15, when the ear is most vulnerable, is usually the most damaging, but sounds that we hear every day, such as sirens, also can reach the threshold for ear damage in people of any age.
Rule of thumb: If people must speak louder than usual to be heard, the setting is noisy enough to warrant taking precautions to avoid hearing problems.
Best prevention strategies…
Stick your fingers in your ears to block the sound of passing sirens. A siren on an emergency vehicle can produce up to 140 decibels — loud enough to cause permanent damage after a single exposure.
Important: If you suffer hearing loss and/or ringing in the ears (tinnitus) after exposure to loud sounds — from a siren or gunshots, for example — see a doctor if these symptoms have not subsided within 24 hours. Your doctor can prescribe medication that may help restore hearing.
Wear ear protection in the yard and/or garage. Earmuffs that have a rubber seal and completely cover the outer ear (available online for $14 to $40) are more effective than earplugs at blocking the noise from power tools, drills, saws, vacuums, chain saws and lawn mowers. Airplane mechanics use this kind of earmuff.
Get a set of customized earplugs (available from most hearing-aid dealers for about $25) if you go to car racetracks, work at a construction site, attend loud concerts or spend time in other noisy environments. Customized earplugs are designed to exactly fit an individual’s ear canals.
Consider buying noise-canceling headphones (available at most electronics stores and online for about $130 to $300) if you listen to digital music players (such as an iPod with earbuds or earphones) in noisy environments.
These headphones block external sounds — from jet engines and crowds, for example — so you don’t have to turn up the volume so high on your digital music player, which increases the risk for ear damage. Digital music players are safe when used at a normal volume in a quiet room.
Earwax (cerumen) lines the ear canal and keeps bacteria-promoting dirt and debris from reaching the eardrum. Old wax normally moves out of the ear canal as new wax is secreted, usually every three months. But some people have a genetic tendency to produce excessive wax, which can fill the ear canal and cause hearing loss, a feeling of “fullness” in the ears and/or ringing in the ears.
The only way to know if earwax is causing hearing loss is for a doctor to examine the ear canal. If you know you’ve had problems with earwax in the past, you may want to try to remove it at home.
Apply several drops of a wax-dissolving medication (such as Debrox or Murine ear drops) that contains carbamide peroxide twice daily for up to four days. After the wax is softened, use a bulb syringe to gently flush the ear with body-temperature water. Do not insert the syringe beyond the entrance to the ear canal — if you block the canal, injury may result. If symptoms, such as hearing loss, don’t improve within four days, your doctor may need to remove the wax with irrigation and suction.
Caution: Avoid cotton swabs. People who attempt to remove wax from the ear canal with a cotton swab are more likely to compress it than remove it, making it harder to remove and leading to painful pressure on the eardrum.
Ear infections are very common in children, but adults get them, too. The infection usually occurs in the middle ear — often following a cold or another viral infection — and can be intensely painful. Ear infections can lead to permanent hearing loss. My advice…
Blow your nose gently. Blowing too vigorously can force mucus and bacteria from the nose into the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose. When blowing your nose, do it slowly and gently — and do not press on one nostril while blowing out the other.
The rapid changes in air pressure that occur when flying — particularly during takeoff and landing — can cause the eardrum to bulge outward or pull inward. Result: A condition called barotrauma, which causes pain, discomfort and/or fluid buildup in the middle ear, can lead to temporary hearing loss. My advice…
Don’t sleep during takeoffs or landings. You need to be awake to yawn, chew gum or open your mouth — all of which open the eustachian tube. Opening the tube allows air to flow in and stabilize the pressure.
Use enzyme lozenges. Pineapple and papaya enzymes (available at health-food stores) reduce swelling of the eustachian tube and relieve congestion. Don’t chew the enzyme lozenges — acids in the stomach will neutralize the enzymes. Let them melt between the cheek and gums. Recommended dosage: One lozenge three times on the day before the flight and again on the day of flight.
Drink hot tea. Both black and green teas contain chemicals that stimulate the nasal cilia (tiny hairs that protect the respiratory tract from dust and other pollutants), which helps open the eustachian tube. Drink a cup or two of hot tea before and during the flight.
Important: If you have a cold or allergies, use a decongestant nasal inhaler, such as propylhexedrine (Benzedrex), or a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) — now sold “behind the counter” — before the plane takes off. Reducing congestion makes it easier for the eustachian tube to open.