Monday 21 January 2019

12 ways to protect your hearing

There are 250,000 people in Ireland with permanent hearing impairment, but you can take steps to prevent it

Most people make the mistake of waiting until their hearing has declined to get their hearing checked
Most people make the mistake of waiting until their hearing has declined to get their hearing checked
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

We get our eyes tested, our blood pressure checked and our cholesterol monitored. Our hearing health, on the other hand, is often overlooked.

According to the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists, a quarter of a million adults in Ireland will have a permanent hearing impairment - and advancing age is just one of the causes.

Noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise in Ireland - especially among young people.

Recent research commissioned by Hidden Hearing found that 17pc of Irish young adults (18-24) are listening to music on their smartphones at maximum volume, while 42pc have experienced ringing and buzzing in their ears -which can be an early indicator of hearing loss.

The ear is an extremely sensitive organ, and the first line of defence is learning how to take care of it. Hearing loss can't be cured, but it can be prevented. Here's how…


Prolonged exposure to noise above 85 dBA (adjusted decibels) can cause hearing loss, so it's important to either limit exposure or wear protection. As a general rule of thumb, if you need to raise your voice to make yourself heard, then the noise is too loud. There are plenty of apps that measure noise levels, including Decibel X, Sound Meter and Too Noisy Pro. For context, a rock concert will measure around 110-120 dBA, a pneumatic drill is 120 dBA and a drum solo is 130 dBA.


The World Health Organisation estimates that almost half of teenagers and young adults (12-35-year-olds) are exposed to levels of sound that could damage their hearing at sporting events, concerts, and even while listening to music on a personal device. Their advice? Wear ear protection if you're exposed to loud music, and follow what experts call the '60/60 Rule': when listening to music through headphones, turn the volume no higher than 60pc, and listen for no longer than 60 minutes before taking a break.


It can be difficult to turn down the volume on personal music devices when you've become used to listening at full blast. If the volume on your headphones sounds too low at 60pc, try a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. They'll block out unnecessary background noise and allow you to hear music at lower audio levels.


The American Academy of Otolaryngology advises against the use of cotton buds to clean the ears as "most cleaning attempts merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a blockage". The ear is a self-cleaning organ, they add, and ear wax has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

If in doubt, just follow the age-old medical adage: if it's smaller than your elbow, don't put it in your ear.


A number of medicines - both prescription and over-the-counter - can damage the ear and alter balance. The side-effects of 'ototoxic' drugs can range from mild dizziness and temporary ringing, to tinnitus and permanent impairment. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association estimates that there are more than 200 ototoxic medications currently on the market, including certain antibiotics, loop diuretics, cancer drugs and aspirin (when taken in very large doses). The level of ototoxicity depends on dose and duration, so talk to your GP if you're taking an ototoxic medicine for a prolonged period, and follow the dosage instructions of painkillers carefully.


Diabetes doubles your risk of developing hearing loss, according to researchers from the Tsukuba University Hospital Mito Medical Centre in Japan, who examined the results of 13 studies involving nearly 8,800 people. If you have diabetes and you're worried about hearing loss, the Diabetes Ireland Care Centre in Santry, Dublin, offers a pure tone audiometry test costing €15 for members and their family, and €35 for non-members.


Nutritional imbalances can contribute to age-related hearing loss and tinnitus. To protect your hearing, make sure you're eating a diet that includes zinc (found in red meat, chicken, oysters, beans and nuts); Vitamin A (found in sweet potatoes, carrots and dark leafy greens) and magnesium (found in dark leafy greens, avocado, nuts and seeds). Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have also established a link between lack of iron and hearing loss: the risk of a person with iron deficiency anaemia developing sensorineural hearing loss is 82pc higher than a person who doesn't have the condition.


An extensive study by researchers at the University of Manchester found that smoking increases the likelihood of hearing loss by 15.1pc, and the effects are cumulative. Commenting on the research, study lead, Dr Piers Dawes, said: "We found the more packets you smoke per week and the longer you smoke, the greater the risk you will damage your hearing."


Contact sports like rugby, wrestling and MMA can lead to auricular hematoma, or 'cauliflower ear' as it is better known. In particularly severe cases, cauliflower ear can lead to temporary hearing loss. The repeated head trauma of contact sports can also cause permanent hearing loss and tinnitus so, for peace of mind, wear head protection.


Irish employers are required to inform employees if the noise level in the workplace is likely to exceed 85 dBA, and to tell them about the potential risk of hearing damage. They are also obliged to provide the services of a qualified audiologist to offer hearing checks and, if necessary, hearing protection. Workers in aviation, agriculture, construction, forestry and manufacturing have a significantly higher risk of developing tinnitus and hearing difficulty. So if you work in any of these industries, it's imperative that you take precautions.


Most people make the mistake of waiting until their hearing has declined before they get their hearing checked. Indeed, recent research commissioned by Specsavers revealed that 69pc of Irish adults have not had their hearing tested in the last five years. Guidelines vary according to age, but a hearing check is generally advised every two years. Those exposed to unhealthy sound levels (musicians, mechanics etc) should get tested yearly.


Untreated hearing loss has far-reaching risk factors, including diminished cognitive function, higher incidents of anxiety and depression and social isolation. However, the stigmatisation of hearing loss can cause people to ignore the first signs of deterioration, and overlook the many ramifications. This is borne out by studies which reveal that people wait 10 years, on average, before they seek help for hearing loss.

If you're self-conscious about wearing a hearing aid, remember that there are plenty of discreet models on the market, and the technology is becoming more sophisticated each year. Don't allow the condition to deteriorate further: if you're experiencing the first signs of hearing loss, be proactive and talk to a qualified audiologist today.


• PROTECTING your baby's hearing begins during pregnancy by maintaining good general health. There are a number of viral infections that a pregnant mother can contract, resulting in her baby being born with a permanent hearing loss. Although Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a common virus, congenital CMV infections only occur in 0.2pc -2.5pc of live births.

• To reduce the chance of contracting CMV, women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy should pay particular attention to good hand hygiene, especially after changing nappies or assisting with blowing noses or toileting. It is also advisable to not share food, drinks, eating utensils or toothbrushes with young children. Common causes of hearing loss in babies and children are otitis media (fluid behind the ear drum), meningitis, measles, mumps, ototoxic medications, head injury and noise exposure. The most common cause of hearing loss in children is middle ear infection (otitis media).

• Signs to look out for are inattentiveness, wanting the television louder, misunderstanding, listlessness, unexplained irritability and pulling or scratching ears.

• Noise exposure can also result in hearing loss and it is important to protect your baby and child from harmful noises.

•If you are worried about your child's hearing, have it assessed by a qualified paediatric audiologist.

• Unmanaged and undiagnosed hearing loss in children can result in speech and language development delays as well as impaired listening skills which can affect educational performance."

* Dr Sandra Cummings is a Paediatric Audiologist at Beacon Audiology; beacon-

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