Allergies Can Wreak Havoc

With the change of season — even though COVID can make it seem like it’s been March forever — another allergy season upon us. Although the physical response to these annual transition periods is usually marked by respiratory issues, allergies can also adversely affect your hearing.

An allergic reaction is basically your body’s immune system overreacting. During allergy season, your body gets kind of overdramatic about pollen and other irritants (heating systems that have gotten dusty over the summer are another instigator) and acts like it’s under attack. Countermeasures are released. This usually results in swelling and the buildup of fluids.

And all of that can happen in your ears.

The proper functioning of the ear is founded on a number of things — an unobstructed ear canal and consistent air pressure around the eardrum are two of those things. Congestion, phlegm, and inflammation can wreak havoc with normal operating procedures in the ear.

This is especially true when the Eustachian tubes — which do the work of regulating air pressure and providing a path for fluid outflow by connecting the middle ear and the throat — get clogged up by those countermeasures that your body has unleashed.

Allergies can also, in many cases, cause the body to crank up the production of earwax, since it is actually part of the ear’s defense mechanism. It’s produced in the outer ear to guard the inner ear against debris.

All of this gets in the way of hearing.

Luckily, treating an allergic outbreak with over-the-counter medications usually reduces symptoms — including hearing loss or ringing in the ears. More severe reactions may require prescription medications and, if hearing issues linger for more than a week, then visiting your hearing health professional is a good idea.

 

The Ins and Out of Ear Infections

There are three types of ear infections that can wreak havoc not only with hearing but also with balance and overall health. Though more common in children, they can also happen to adults —often with harsher symptoms that indicate serious underlying conditions.

Types of ear infections are broken down to correlate with the structure of the ear. They are grouped as inner, middle, and outer ear infections.

  • Inner Ear Infections: Symptoms are pain in the ear, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Obviously, serious stuff that can indicate something as severe as meningitis.
  • Middle Ear Infections: The medical term is otitis media and it is a situation where fluid becomes lodged behind the eardrum, which can degrade the ability to hear. The ear feels clogged and fluid may drain from it. Fever sometimes occurs. Usually the byproduct of a respiratory infection that migrates into the ear via the Eustachian tubes (which run from the back of your nose and throat to the ears and are crucial to maintaining equalized air pressure and balance).
  • Outer ear infections: Often caused by bacterial infections like swimmer’s ear and known medically as otitis externa. Itchiness in the ear is usually the first sign, followed by tenderness and swelling. Excess moisture in the ear — along with existing skin abrasions in the ear canal — are the culprits leading to such infections. Keep ears dry and don’t clean them in such a way that skin can be scratched — which gives bacteria a growth environment.

Ear infections usually come and go, annoying but not life-altering. But if symptoms linger for a few days and you have a fever, then consulting a healthcare professional is advisable — especially if your hearing changes and/or there is fluid drainage occurring.

The Fine Art of Mask Wearing

The news regarding COVID-19 is not good. There’s renewed emphasis on the need for people to wear masks when out of their house.

This presents some challenges to anyone who uses a hearing aid.

Everyone “lip-reads” when speaking with someone else. The use of visual cues when conversing is so ingrained that we don’t even realize we do it. Body English is really a thing. But people wearing masks and talking will notice how strange it is to not see the speaker’s face. If you’re hearing-impaired, the loss of this information is even more challenging.

The only way to compensate is for people to speak slower and more clearly. Letting them know how challenging this all is with a hearing aid will help them do their best to communicate. Avoiding situations with a lot of background noise will help too.

And wearing a mask with elastic ear loops and a hearing aid can be a mess and take some getting used to — especially if eyeglasses are involved too. That’s just a traffic pile up at the ears.

One strategy is to use masks with tie strings instead. Less material in the ear area and no loop to catch hold of a hearing aid when being removed.

There are also mask holders that are popular with medical personal. They provide a way to connect the elastic ear loops behind your head. Something similar can be rigged up with plastic S-hooks or even large paperclips.

What’s clear is that there is a renewed push to make mask-wearing common and universal. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.

Hearing: A Core Aspect of Sociability

If the past few months have brought any issue to the forefront, it’s the concept of social connectedness. As our ability to get together and socialize — to undertake the rituals of the every day — has been restricted, it’s become ever more apparent what social animals we are.

And for the vast majority of humans, hearing is a crucial part of that equation. This isn’t news to researchers and, for that matter, people who have struggled not fully participating in conversations due to hearing loss issues.

Studying this fact — especially as it relates to aging — has been a significant part of the work of Barbara E. Weinstein, who is a professor of audiology at the Graduate Center CUNY and an adjunct professor at the New York University Langone Medical Center. She is the author of the textbook Geriatric Audiology, published in 2012.

As part of her research, she developed the Hearing Handicap Inventory for the Elderly, now an industry-standard diagnostic tool.

In a recent interview, Weinstein goes in-depth about her life’s work. When she began, things were different (and not just technologically).

“It was a time when audiologists were just starting to dispense hearing aids. Theoretically, the early 80s wasn’t that early in the profession, but just, people were not focused on the person, they were focused on the new and emerging technology!” she explains. “After developing the Hearing Handicap Inventory, every single study in which I was engaged, was to get people to buy into the importance of the patient and how our interventions can improve the lives of older adults with hearing loss.”

That work that has culminated in today’s audiological philosophy, with the importance of hearing health to people’s overall health fully realized.

“Physicians know that isolation/loneliness is a bad thing, and that loneliness has negative effects on morbidity and mortality,” says Weinstein. “If they recognize that age-related hearing loss is a potentially modifiable risk factor for social isolation/loneliness and that we can make a difference in people’s lives by intervening with hearing aids, I think that’s the whole goal and that is the way to increase referrals to optimize hearing health and overall well-being.”

The full interview can be found at the Audiology Blog of the hearing aid maker Phonak.

That Was Then, This Is Now

A few weeks ago, Better Hearing and Speech Month — annually recognized each May to heighten hearing-related issues — was to focus on “Communication at Work.” Seemed like a worthy and simple enough topic.

But that was then.

On April 30, the president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) announced that the month would instead be marked by outreach on a wide variety of hearing issues. This is a recognition that people — both hearing health customers and their healthcare providers —are now dealing with a wide variety of unexpected issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the month several topics will be explored by ASHA via updates at the organization’s website.

These include “Early Intervention and COVID-19: Advice for Parents of Children Whose Services Are Interrupted,” “Helping Children With Language Disorders Maintain Social Connection While at Home,” “Zoom Meetings and Stuttering: Tips to Make Virtual Interactions More Successful,” and “Augmentative and Alternative Communication and COVID-19: Enabling Communication for Acute Care Patients.”

First established in 1927 by ASHA and today fully supported by the federal National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) — which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — Better Hearing and Speech Month is meant to highlight hearing health issues.

But there’s only one overriding health issue this year.

“Our goal is to champion every person’s ability to communicate, including at this difficult time,” said ASHA President Theresa H. Rodgers when announcing the change.

From hearing loss research being disrupted to audiologists from coast-to-coast having to alter their visitation policies, COVID-19 is severely impacting not just individuals but an entire industry.

Six Ways Hearing Can Be Lost

Hearing loss can happen for any number of reasons, though some things are far more likely to cause it than others. Here are the top six triggers for diminished hearing.

  1. Just Getting Older
    If you’re lucky and wait long enough, it’ll probably happen to you. The inner ear is a marvel, with lots of tiny moving parts that do what they do every day of your life. Eventually, parts start to wear out.
  2. Can’t Fight Genetics
    Speaking of marvels, all the genetic information that goes into a human being is astounding. A gram of human DNA holds about a zettabyte — that’s 10 to the 21st power (basically, a lot of zeroes) — of data. Sometimes some of it gets garbled, making genetic predisposition the second most prominent driver of hearing loss.
  3. Issues At Birth
    Birth issues such as maternal diabetes, neonatal jaundice, and premature delivery can cause hearing problems that are permanent.
  4. As Do Infections
    Most ear infections cause only temporary hearing loss, but severe ones can create enduring issues. Take ear infections seriously.
  5. There Are Bones In There
    A dislocated shoulder from a sports injury is not out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, that kind of hard contact can do the same to the tiny bones in the ear. Nerve damage can also result from a hard blow to the head. Concussion protocol includes tracking any potential hearing issues.
  6. Loudness Is The Enemy
    The most likely way to damage ears for most people is exposure to excessive sound. This can be extreme sound like a noisy work environment or not using ear protection when firing a gun. Or loud concerts. Or earbuds or headphones with the volume turned up too high. This is the easiest culprit for people to control.

There’s nothing you can do — other than to manage the problem with hearing aids —about several items on this list. But not number six. Take care of your ears when you can.