Hearing loss does not only affect the elderly. Go to one concert too many, wear headphones too often, or develop a swimmer’s ear at your pool side summer parties and you can experience hearing loss at any age.
We asked Coastal hearing care audiologist Dr Kristin DesErmia for tips on what to do when you first notice hearing loss, how hearing tests work, and tips for keeping your ears healthy. (Spoiler: put away your cotton swabs.)
What are the first signs of hearing loss?
“When people report having difficulty hearing people at a distance, someone with their back to you, or difficulty understanding speech and noise, these are warning signs,” DesErmia explains. “If you complain about people mumbling or asking them to speak more clearly, you are probably hearing less than you think.”
DesErmia also recommends asking a family member or friend if they’ve noticed that you’re having trouble hearing. Sometimes tinnitus (or ringing in the ears) can be an early sign of hearing loss.
What are the different types of hearing loss?
DesErmia says there are two different types: conductive neurons and sensory neurons. Conductive hearing loss is related to the mechanics of our outer and middle ear. Genetics sometimes play a role in this loss, and it can also be due to earwax or an ear infection. Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the nerve pathways to the ear. Sometimes patients can have a combination of the two.
“Age is a risk factor, but our patients are getting younger and younger,” DesErmia explains. “I would recommend basic hearing tests around the age of 55.”
The reasons why people suffer from either type of hearing loss are a history of ear infections, side effects of medications, medical treatments like chemotherapy and sometimes head trauma, an accident stroke or heart attack.
What are the main causes of hearing loss?
“Exposure to noise is common and comes in many different forms,” DesErmia explains. “We ask patients about their activities and hobbies when they were younger: did they play loud musical instruments, did they work in a factory, etc. Hearing loss is cumulative, as is high cholesterol. It can get worse over the course of your life. “
DesErmia says age and genetics play a role, especially in combination with years of exposure to noisy environments.
When should people see an audiologist?
DesErmia says if people are having trouble hearing those around them, it helps to have a basic hearing test with an audiologist. She performs a thorough medical history check to determine if the underlying conditions are contributing to the hearing loss. Next, she does a lifestyle assessment, asking patients where hearing loss impacts their lives. Patients also talk about their hearing goals.
Afterwards, DesErmia will look for wax in the patient’s ears or check the eardrums, which should appear translucent. Patients will enter a soundproof booth and put on headphones for a beep test, which is the gold standard for testing. Patients raise their hands when they hear beeps of different volumes.
“This gives us a baseline of hearing loss to work with,” DesErmia explains. “Then we move on to more complicated speech and noise tests.”
What is the measure to determine if hearing aids are needed?
Hearing loss is measured on a decibel scale. Normal hearing will be -10 to 20 decibels. DesErmia says mild hearing loss will start at around 30 decibels. Anything above 30 decibels will have a significant impact on your ability to hear.
DesErmia empowers her patients to decide if hearing aids are the right choice for them. Medicare does not cover hearing aids and they can cost anywhere from $ 3,000 to $ 6,000 for a pair. Hearing tests are also not covered unless recommended by a doctor and cost around $ 50 to $ 85 depending on the level of the test. Follow-up appointments are necessary every four to six months to maintain and clean the hearing aids.
Any tips for keeping our ears healthy?
“If you suffer from tinnitus, take a look at the medications you’re taking and think about lifestyle changes,” DesErmia explains. Tinnitus can sound like crickets, bells, or a constant sound in your ears and is usually a precursor to hearing loss. Make sure you get enough sleep and reduce your exposure to loud noises, and also talk to your doctor about any medications you are taking that could cause tinnitus.
If you have earwax, do not use a cotton swab. DesErmia suggests letting the natural design of your ear work the wax on the outer ear and using a damp washcloth at the ear opening to clean it. Exercise and movement also help move earwax. “If your earwax is blocking your ears, use a softening drip like Debrox,” DesErmia explains. “Or mix half vinegar and half alcohol at room temperature to rinse the ears using a bulb syringe.”
It is normal to have a small amount of earwax in your ears. It helps seal the canal so water doesn’t stay in the ear (looking at you, pools!), And is naturally antibacterial.
Finally, DesErmia suggests, cut down on your headphone use time and turn down the volume so you can hear the people around you.