Your Hearing and Your Job

There are many things to consider when choosing a career. Maybe your long-term hearing health is one to add to the list.

There’s no way around the fact that jobs in factories and construction sites, or fields like agriculture, aviation, mining, or the military come with a higher risk of hearing loss. Heavy machinery creates a constant, high-decibel rumble that can damage the ears.

And if the career phase of your life is over and you worked that kind of job, then you should be especially attuned to any hearing loss that may manifest itself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States.” Over 22 million workers in the United States are exposed to dangerous levels of noise at their worksite.

The damage done is cumulative and does not become clear until later in life.

The classic “macho” jobsites are not the only places where this kind of work-related harm can happen. Bartenders and waitstaff in nightclubs or loud restaurants are at risk, as are workers in live entertainment—including musicians. If the workplace is loud, the risk is there.

Another employment risk is from ototoxic chemicals (OHL), a wide range of solvents, asphyxiants, nitriles, pharmaceuticals, and metals and compounds that have been shown to make ears more susceptible to damage.

Known as Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL), it’s estimated that 24 percent of the hearing issues Americans suffer—which comprises 12 percent of the overall population—is work-related. And the longer someone works in a hazardous environment the more likely hearing loss will happen.

It’s clear that always using hearing protection is the best course of action when working in the kinds of jobs that can damage hearing. And if it’s too late to take preventive measures, then make regular hearing checkups part of your medical routine.

When Your Kid Really Isn’t Ignoring You

It’s easy to assume that hearing loss is specific to the Social Security years; it is more likely in older people. Everyone is on the lookout for it.

But less often—and therefore easier to overlook—is hearing loss developing in children. Adults can easily assume that obvious symptoms of hearing loss have to do with something else.

Children have short attention spans, especially regarding things not of their choosing. Not being heard is something every parent experiences. But sometimes it’s not that simple.

Here are some cues that there may be more going on:

  • A child who turns their head to one side when listening.
  • One who refers to either ear being the “good” one.
  • The recognition that a child needs to see you to understand you (this may be a sign they are using visual cues to compensate for hearing loss).
  • Almost all kids talk loudly, but doing so when not in an excited state—in an environment where it doesn’t seem natural—is not unusual in people with hearing issues, since people naturally compensate for not hearing by becoming louder when talking (think of how everyone ends up yelling in a crowded restaurant or bar).
  • Again, most kids turn the volume up on their music. But if it seems excessive—especially with the TV or for other non-musical content—then take note.
  • Finally, an abrupt drop in performance at school can be a sign of hearing loss. Sometimes teachers will notice that a student seems withdrawn or less active in class but not realize hearing loss is the root problem.

A child developing hearing loss after infancy does not happen that often, but it does happen. And there are ways to help once the issue has been diagnosed.

Why’s Everyone Mumbling?

Are you suddenly having trouble understanding what other people are saying? Not completely confident it’s entirely on them?

A few things could be going on.

In the “you gotta be kidding me” section there’s the possibility that you’ve just got too much of a good thing going on in your ear. As in earwax, which actually is important as a lubricant and defense against infection for your ears. But too much of it can get in the way of hearing. Don’t go digging it out—this can makes things worse and even cause damage—but rather tilt your head and put 5 to 10 drops of hydrogen peroxide in your ear. Hold there for a couple of minutes and let it start dissolving things.

If your earwax hasn’t been doing its job, then you could be suffering from a mild ear infection. The body will respond to this with inflammation, which can result in the eardrum being impacted.

The bacterial infection known far and wide as swimmer’s ear—brought on by too much moisture in the ear—can lead to the same result, in part because the diameter of the ear canal is reduced due to swelling.

Those are the most common, and least worrisome, causes of sudden “muddy” hearing.

Not surprisingly, a ruptured eardrum can also have a rather drastic and sudden impact on your hearing. Sometimes a bad infection can damage an eardrum this profoundly, but usually you’ll know when it happened—exposure to a loud noise or blow to the head.

Finally, occasionally a tumor—usually benign and known as an acoustic neuroma—can develop that slowly narrows the ear canal until, one day, you notice something’s not quite right. These can be treated with surgery or radiation.

All of the above are issues that usually crop up in only one ear. If there are persistent issues in both ears—especially without any sign of infection—then an immediate visit to a hearing health professional is called for.

Exercise Is Even Good For Your Ears

There are many reasons to make an exercise routine a priority. Most everyone knows this. But aiding your hearing is probably a reason you’re not aware of.

There’s research to support this, including a long-term study conducted by Miami University in the early 2000s that spanned a decade. It found that people over the age of 50 who worked out for at least 20 minutes five times a week were more likely to maintain hearing analogous to people still in their 30s.

A more recent study carried out by John Hopkins University found similar results, with positive outcomes for seniors who exercised as little as three hours a week.

The gist of the findings is that better cardiovascular health means higher functioning ears. Crucial parts of the inner ear—especially the cochlear hair cells that are the transition point between sound waves and the electrical signals sent to the brain that are what we actually “hear”—depend on vigorous blood circulation.

A sedentary lifestyle inevitably leads to poorer cardiovascular performance. And unlike body hair, if cochlear hairs atrophy and die they are not replaced with new ones. This is one of the primary drivers of presbycusis—the fancy word for people becoming hard of hearing as they get older.

Also at risk from reduced circulatory function are spiral ganglions, which are the nerve cells that act as the “wiring” that carry electrical impulses from the cochlear to the brain. They too depend on a healthy body to stay in peak shape.

The gist is that exercise—walking, swimming, biking, weight training, or even just gardening and housework—will lessen inflammation throughout the body and increase the oxygen content of the bloodstream. And both these things will help your hearing.

Take Care This Summer

Now that COVID-19 restrictions have been eased and we’re making up for lost time, it’s time to remember that some summer activities come with a risk of damaging your hearing.

Loud, sudden noise is one of the easiest ways to damage your ears. Fireworks are a well-known source of temporary—and sometimes permanent—hearing damage. They can create sound at the 175-decibel level; damage to ears can be caused by anything over 120 decibels.

The farther away you are from an explosion, the better for your ears. And if you are responsible for a young child, be aware that a noise level that adults can handle may not be true for a youngster, since their ear canals are so much smaller (which will amplify the effects of a high-decibel incident).

The same dynamic holds true for car races, the firing of guns, power tools, and all the other loud things that are part of summer.

Getting in the water is a big part of summer too. The primary risk here is coming down with a case of swimmer’s ear—which is just a seasonal name for an ear infection—due to bacteria finding their way into tiny scrapes and scratches in the lining of your ear canal.

What’s a common way to cause such abrasions? Sticking things in your ear—fingers, swabs, towels—when trying to dry them out after swimming or sweating due to exercising.

So, try to just let your ears dry out on their own—tilting your head from side to side will help—or use drops or a hair dryer (on a low setting).

It’s good to be back out, but don’t forget to take care of your hearing.

The Threat of Hearing Loss

Did you know that hearing loss can lead to poorer brain function?

Along with more seasonable weather, and maybe the promise a few beach days, the month of June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. Since 1980, people have been going purple to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s support and to accelerate research.  The Alzheimer’s Association even points out that June 20th, the summer solstice and normally the longest day of the year, is our chance to “fight the darkness of Alzheimer’s.”

And if you, or anyone you know has been ignoring their hearing issues, then this is a good time to visit a hearing professional. This is because it has become clear that untreated hearing loss can lead to cognitive brain performance issues, including Alzheimer’s.

Studies published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, The American Journal of Epidemiology, Archives of Neurology, and other peer-reviewed journals have all shown links between poor hearing and brain issues. And still others have shown that treating hearing loss effectively, especially with hearing aids, can lessen or eliminate the consequences.

Poor hearing can lead to social isolation, which heightens loneliness, which can lead to depression and dementia. More directly, the lack of activity in the part of the brain that interacts with the ears via the auditory nerve can atrophy due to lack of activity. This appears to be a process that is not necessarily localized.

“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” according to Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., a research director at Johns Hopkins. In fact, even mild hearing loss, when left untreated, doubled dementia risk, moderate loss tripled the risk, and those with severe hearing impairments were five times more likely to develop dementia.

There’s no reason to put off a hearing exam.

Hearing Loss Isn’t Just for the Old Folks

A patient recently asked us ‘Aren’t hearing aids only for older people? ‘. What a fantastic question! For those of us who’ve been watching, the trend of hearing loss issues moving down the age brackets has become increasingly clear over the last decade. It’s been estimated that as much as 15 percent of people under age 65 have hearing issues.

Putting aside genetic factors in hearing loss, the main drivers of this cultural dilemma are driven by lifestyle or occupation and usually in the control of the people who end up dealing with hearing loss.

The past year of social isolation has been a double-edged sword with regards to these issues.

One of the main drivers of noise induced hearing loss in younger adults has been the use of headphones and earbuds with personal listening devices – often referred to as leisure noise – that have flooded the market in recent years. With more people staying home during lockdown, activities like gaming, listening to music, watching streaming services, and even work-from-home culture complete with video conferencing with the volume turned up has exposed many to long-term, potentially damaging sounds.

On the other hand, not spending time in crowded bars or clubs where large sound systems blast out the volume (98dB on average!) has probably saved a great deal of wear and tear for many. But with vaccinations picking up steam and restrictions beginning to be dropped, such exposure may go into overdrive soon for many.

Both scenarios are the primary culprits in hearing damage sub-senior adults. The fact is, much of contemporary life is just louder than it used to be. And for many, that will mean an accumulation of damage to the inner ear.

The best countermeasure is being careful with the volume when at home and using noise-reducing earplugs when hitting the clubs and committing to regular hearing screenings to understand how, and if, your hobbies or your job might me impacting you hearing.

Are Allergies About to Affect Your Hearing?

Spring is on the way. It might still be lurking around the corner but it’ll be here soon.

Which, by and large, is a great thing. But for many folks, springtime is also allergy time. And if you’re really lucky, another aspect of seasonal allergies can be hearing issues.

By and large, this is about the fluids that the body produces in reaction to what’s floating in the springtime air. Things like pollen, mold, dander, and dust mites are taken as an invasive force and your body unleashes the dogs of the immune system—antibodies and histamines—against them. Unfortunately for you, this is a false flag operation, since allergens aren’t actually going to make you sick like germs and viruses do; your body just “thinks” they are.

And how do antibodies and histamines get around your body? In fluids, which can then overwhelm specific areas and produce bottlenecks, which results in swelling. If this happens in your ear canal, then you’ve got a hearing issue.

Several things can happen when fluid accumulates in your ears.

One, the already-narrow ear canal can get even slimmer, which throws off the auditory dynamics of the complex sound system deeper down in the middle and inner ear.

Fluid buildup in the inner ear will also degrade its functionality directly, including the calibration of the vestibular system. This is a crucial part of how we maintain our balance, based on maintaining equilibrium through the movement of fluid that sends signals, via tiny hairs and subsequent electrical impulses, to the brain. A buildup of excess fluid can throw the whole system off-kilter.

That’s why, for the allergy-prone, springtime can mean dizzy spells, along with hearing issues and ear-popping. Unless symptoms are severe or prolonged, it’s a matter of waiting things out, with over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants serving as the best way to muddle through.

Giving the Gift of Hearing at the End of a Long Year

This past year—the 2020 lockdown—will always be remembered as one of sacrifice, loss, and determination. It’s demanded that we all adjust and recommit to charitable giving.

In December we once again sponsored our Gift of Hearing event. Our third annual giveaway, it features open nominations of people who—because of their public service or unique circumstances—are not only dealing with hearing issues but are also deserving of a free pair of premium hearing aids.

Like the United Way drop boxes that you’ll find at our office through the end of this month—ready for personal items like toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, razors that will be directed to food pantries and community shelters—the “Gift of Hearing” event is a small way to support the community in these difficult times.

Given the realities of 2020, we couldn’t choose just one deserving recipient, so we picked two.

Our first beneficiary was Andres, known not only for his selfless service to the nation but also famous for helping those in need. After many years of giving he got to be on the receiving end of generosity.

Our second recipient was Nicole, a loving wife and mother of two who has struggled with significant hearing issues for years. We’re hoping her new hearing aids help her enjoy her family in what we all expect to be a fantastic 2021.

COVID Brings Hearing Consequences

In an unfortunate, but perhaps not a surprising turn of events, it appears that COVID-19 is amplifying, as it were, hearing issues for many.

Recent articles in medical publications are beginning to chronicle the rise in tinnitus that some are experiencing in the age of COVID — and not necessarily simply because they’ve gotten the disease itself.

The study “Changes in Tinnitus Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic” appeared in Frontiers in Public Health. It summarizes a study of over 3,000 that focused on those who already suffered from the condition, known to many as simply a constant ringing-in-the-ears (though other sounds can also plague people).

“Having COVID-19 symptoms exacerbated tinnitus in 40% of respondents, made no change in 54%, and improved tinnitus in 6%,” states the article. “Other mediating factors such as the social and emotional consequences of the pandemic made pre-existing tinnitus more bothersome for 32% of the respondents.”

A host of consequences from COVID were listed in the report’s findings as perhaps contributing to the rising rate of tinnitus, including poor sleep patterns, the inability to exercise regularly, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and economic stress.

In contrast, a study in the Ear, Nose & Throat Journal entitled simply “COVID-19 and Tinnitus” discusses “… the first reported case of hearing loss and tinnitus in a COVID-19 patient, in the State of Qatar, and this case report strives to contribute to the ocean of literature highlighting the need for otorhinolaryngologists [nose and sinus specialists] to be aware of its correlation with COVID-19 virus.”

The study’s conclusion argues, “…this case report highlights the importance of detailed audiological diagnostics in COVID-19 patients who experience isolated tinnitus and hearing loss.”

These are sadly probably not the last studies regarding hearing loss, tinnitus, and COVID.