Like most things in life, we often don’t appreciate something until we lose it. The senses are one (or five) of those things. If you’ve ever intermittently lost your taste buds due to a virus, you’ll realise what a massive difference they make to you.
With hearing, however, unless you lose it relatively quickly due to illness or trauma, you don’t realise it’s going until it’s quite far gone. That’s why it’s so important to get your ears checked and do everything you can to preserve your hearing for as long as possible.
It’s World Hearing Day on 3rd March and so, this month we’re bringing awareness to how you can look after your ears so that their parts last longer, and we’ll also look at what you can do if you are already suffering from hearing loss.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What types of hearing loss are there?
- What causes hearing loss?
- What are the signs you may be losing your hearing?
- What can you do to prevent or slow hearing loss?
- How to cope with hearing loss.
1. What types of hearing loss are there?
Hearing loss is not a rare thing. According to Amplifon, one in six Australians (more than 3 million) and 5% of the global population have hearing impairments, which equates to 466 million people worldwide. So, if you are suffering from hearing loss, rest assured you’re not alone.
There are three main types of hearing loss:
- Conductive – this affects the outer or middle ear and could be a result of wax build-up, a ruptured eardrum, water in the ears, or a condition like otosclerosis where a bone grows in the middle ear and blocks the sound. This type of hearing loss can usually be treated with medicine or surgery.
- Sensorineural – this affects the inner ear or auditory nerve and unfortunately, this damage is usually permanent.
- Mixed – a combination of the two.
2. What causes hearing loss?
There are various potential causes of hearing loss, but the most common two causes of inner ear damage are ageing and loud noises.
Ageing – Many people naturally lose some of their hearing as part of ageing. This is called presbycusis and is due to wear and tear on the delicate parts of the inner ear. Just like a car getting rusty, the ears can get worn with age. You can’t stop this, but you can slow it down.
Exposure to loud noises – If you’re consistently exposed to loud noises, such as at a construction site or factory, and you do not wear ear protection, this could damage your inner ear over time. Sudden blasts like an explosion can also do lasting damage.
According to Safe Work Australia, there are limits to how long you can be exposed to different volumes without wearing ear protection. For example, you can be exposed to 80 decibels for 16 hours before damage should occur, whereas you can only be exposed to 130 decibels for 0.9s before damage will likely occur.
To give you some context, 130 dB is about the volume of a military jet taking off from an aircraft carrier, 100 dB is the level of a tractor, jackhammer or motorbike, and 80 dB is the level of a blender or a diesel truck travelling at about 60km/h.
Heredity – Some people are more likely to lose their hearing from age or loud noises because of their genetics. Conditions like otosclerosis are also thought to be hereditary.
Ototoxic medications – Certain medications, including some antibiotics, Viagra, some chemotherapy drugs, some medicine for serious infections or heart disease, antimalarial drugs, loop diuretics and high doses of Aspirin can lead to hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Illnesses and health conditions – Illnesses like meningitis that give you a high fever can damage the cochlea in your inner ear. Ear infections and tumours can also cause hearing loss. Conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, a stroke, a heart condition or head trauma can also lead to hearing loss.
Ruptured eardrum – If you’re exposed to a sudden change in pressure, or a loud blast such as a gunshot, your tympanic membrane (eardrum) can become perforated and won’t be able to transmit the sound waves to the inner ear as it should.
Wax build-up – Your ear canal may become blocked with earwax over time, which blocks the sound waves and stops them from reaching the inner ear. This is usually an easy fix at the doctor’s office.
3. What are the signs you may be losing your hearing?
- You turn your TV up so you can hear it, but others complain it’s too loud.
- You have to ask others to repeat themselves often.
- You can’t hear well in stereo – if two people are talking at once or there is background noise.
- You struggle to hear what women and young children say.
- You notice a ringing or buzzing sound in your ears.
- You start to avoid social situations and withdraw from conversations.
4. What can you do to prevent or slow hearing loss?
Some hearing loss can’t be prevented, but there are things you can do to protect your hearing for longer.
Avoid loud sounds or use ear protection. Try to minimise the amount of time you’re exposed to loud noises and if you can’t avoid it, then invest in some ear protection like earplugs or earmuffs.
Go for a hearing test regularly. The sooner you catch it, the more options you have to stop your hearing from deteriorating or at least, slow it down.
Keep the rest of your body in good health. Since diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease can damage your inner ear, following a healthy diet, exercising and keeping your weight in check can help to prevent hearing loss.
Stop smoking and drink only in moderation. These can both negatively impact your hearing.
Eat well or take a vitamin supplement. Vitamins like B12 and minerals like potassium, magnesium and iron are all vital to hearing well.
Try to avoid ototoxic drugs, as mentioned above.
5. How to cope with hearing loss.
The ability to hear brings us joy and connection. It allows us to appreciate music, the sounds of nature and the laughter of loved ones. It allows us to communicate easily and understand the thoughts and feelings of others.
That’s why when you begin to lose your hearing, it can be very isolating and upsetting. You may feel you want to withdraw from or avoid social situations. Here are some ideas to help you cope with hearing loss and not feel left out of the conversation:
- First and foremost, see a professional who can help you to find the best solution. Perhaps it’s a hearing aid. Advanced technology means that hearing aids have come a long way and can now filter out many sounds, so you can hear what you want to hear.
- Tell others you have a hearing problem and ask them to speak slowly and clearly.
- Ask them to face you when they speak as this helps for lip-reading and deciphering words.
- Position yourself so you can best hear the person who is speaking.
- Remember it happens to many people and is nothing to be ashamed of.
When your hearing starts to go, it can be scary and frustrating and that is understandable. You may feel embarrassed and not want to talk about it or accept it, but the best way to help your ears last as long as possible is to firstly consult with your doctor as it may just be a simple fix.