Keep Those Ears Dry

It’s summer and everyone is trying to get in some outdoor recreation after being cooped for the past few months. Even if pools are still closed due to COVID-19, swimming in the ocean, lakes, rivers, ponds, or backyard pools offers the opportunity for some socially-distant exercise.

But with summer swimming can come swimmer’s ear. (And truth be told, you don’t have to go swimming to come down with a case of it).

Swimmer’s ear is really just a fairly common type of bacterial infection of the skin lining the ear canal. It causes mild pain around the ear — especially when pressure is applied to the tragus, that lump of skin at the opening of the ear — and itchiness. If there’s clear fluid draining from your ear then you probably have swimmer’s ear.

What causes it is too much water in the ear canal — hence the name. Besides keeping water out in the first place with earplugs, it’s important to thoroughly dry out your ears after they’ve been immersed in water (this can include getting caught in a summer downpour). That means not popping hearing aids back in immediately. Give the ear canal some “air” so any moisture can evaporate.

Also, go easy on the ear cleaning if you know you’ll be swimming or engaging in any activity in which the ears can get very wet. Any abrasions in the skin of the ear will make it more likely that bacteria can — in an inelegant metaphor — get a foothold in your ear.

If you suspect you’ve got swimmer’s ear, then treat it. Ear drops that negate the bacteria and provide greater evaporation are the most common method. Swimmer’s ear can get worse — including the discharge of pus from the ears, infection of the lymph nodes, and fever — so don’t let it run wild.

Mask-Wearing, Whether You Like It or Not

 

With the rebound in COVID-19 cases hitting many parts of the country, the need — and in many places requirement — to wear masks isn’t going away anytime soon.

Other than bandits, no one likes wearing a mask. Someone with a hearing aid even less so.

Sure, the first few times you pull off your mask and your hearing aid flies out of your ear is fun, but the novelty wears off fast. The negative reinforcement of this scenario will probably make being careful when removing a mask second nature pretty quickly.

What else can you do?

Masks with fabric ties that require the basic shoelace knot — as opposed to elastic ear loops — are probably a better bet, since once untied the strings won’t lasso any part of the hearing aid on their way by your ear.

If you do like elastic ties better, there are also mask holders — simple loops with snaps — that will pull the loops together at the back of the head. No ears required. S-hooks from the hardware store can also serve the same purpose.

Also, contact your hearing health professional. There may be solutions already discovered that best suit the kind of hearing aid you have. Everyone is having to be creative these days; lots of ideas are circulating.

And clearly hearing people who are speaking while wearing a mask is no bargain either. If you have to communicate with someone, remember to let them know you’re wearing a hearing aid and that you may need them to speak slowly. And try to talk away from other noise.

Don’t forget to bring your patience. It looks like mask-wearing will be with us for the foreseeable future.

A Month For Men to Consider Their Health

Thanks to Congressional action in 1994, June is officially Men’s Health Month. Actually, the original legislation — first sponsored by then-Senator and later Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole — proclaimed June 12 to 19 National Men’s Health Week. Inflation ensued and now it’s a whole month.

The purpose is to encourage men to realize “… the value that preventive health can play in prolonging their lifespan and their role as a productive family member [and] be more likely to participate in health screenings.”

And in the specific realm of hearing health, men do have some areas of concern to keep in mind.

The fact is, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, men are twice as likely to have hearing loss issues than women. And less likely to seek treatment.

The disparity is not fully understood, though the greater percentage of men having industrial jobs in sectors like construction and the military is thought to play a role in this statistical reality. The fact that men hunt with firearms at a much higher rate is probably also a factor. The best solution to these realities is to embrace the use of hearing protection, since long-term exposure to high-decibel sound environments is one of the surest ways to develop hearing issues.

Unfortunately, there is also some evidence that the regular use of many analgesics — common pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — can also be a risk factor for hearing loss in men (especially so in younger men). The cause is not clear, but just in cast try not to get in the habit of just taking pain relievers when not really needed.

Diabetes is also a risk factor, doubling one’s chances of developing hearing loss. And the rate of diabetes is slightly higher for men than women.

Finally, hearing loss is not an isolated condition. It is tied to an increased risk of depression and cognitive decline.

So, this June is the perfect time to think about making some lifestyle changes to protect your hearing or visiting a hearing health professional for a checkup.

Normal Isn’t the Operative Word These Days

In normal years, Better Hearing & Speech Month rolls around every May and a topic is embraced by the hearing health industry, led by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

But this is so not a normal year.

On the last day of April, ASHA released a statement making it clear that the already chosen theme “Communication at Work” had to be seriously altered. Instead, efforts would center on providing information and support in these unprecedented times of COVID-19.

“Our goal is to champion every person’s ability to communicate, including at this difficult time. Although circumstances are quite unprecedented for this year’s Better Hearing & Speech Month, the expertise and dedication of ASHA members are constant,” said ASHA President Theresa H. Rodgers. “The countless, innovative ways audiologists and speech-language pathologists have transformed their work during the pandemic — striving to help their patients, clients, and students to the fullest extent possible — testify to their unwavering commitment to ASHA’s vision of making effective communication, a human right, accessible and achievable for all.”

ASHA represents over 200,000 members, all of whom have been scrambling to change course. This has meant everything from instituting telemedicine and drop box services to suspending clinical trials and teaching college- and graduate-level courses remotely.

For individuals stuck at home, ASHA will be providing information on its website covering challenges that many are facing, including helping children with hearing issues deal with remote schooling and a lack of in-person therapy, managing virtual meetings when hearing impaired, and managing communication issues for the hard of hearing.

Updates can be found on the ASHA website.

When Your Job Makes You Hard of Hearing

Getting older is already a risk factor for hearing loss. Unfortunately, getting older after having a career in certain occupations raises that risk. And not surprisingly, jobs that are loud are jobs that can negatively affect hearing.

The economic sectors most detrimental to hearing are manufacturing (factory work), construction, aviation, mining, agriculture, and the military.

But others aren’t as obvious. The entertainment industry — including bartenders and waitstaff who work in nightclubs and concert venues — is high-risk. So too are dentists (those drills), ambulance drivers (sirens), and PE teachers (lose that whistle).

Basically, any job where high-decibel noise is an every day (or every night) occurrence.

One 2018 study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that tracked workers in the nuclear power industry, discovered that over half had hearing loss issues. The study was based on data collected from over 19,000 workers by the Building Trades Medical Screening Program. The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) sponsored the research.

The study amplified a not surprising finding — the longer the career in a high-decibel setting the higher the hazard. Workers with careers over 30 years were 4 times more likely to having hearing issues than those who had worked for less than 10 years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States” with over 22 million workers exposed to dangerous noise levels while on the job.

And most alarming, the injury to one’s ears is usually cumulative, meaning it can be getting worse before becoming obvious later in life.

Using hearing protection now — each and every day (or night) on the job — is really the only way to keep occupational hearing loss at bay.

Hearing Loss and Genetics

For most people, hearing loss issues develop because something happens later in life. They get older or their ears are damaged because of accidents, infection, or exposure to loud noise.

But for some, it’s a matter of being born with issues. This falls under the rubric of genetic hearing disorders.

Genes are the basic building block of cell growth. They are the instruction manual. And unfortunately, problems can arise. These are known as mutations. These can then be passed down to successive generations as familial traits. Other factors, such as radiation exposure, can also introduce mutations.

Genetic hearing issues have been broken down into several broad categories.

When both parents have genetic traits and they are passed onto their child it is known as autosomal recessive hearing loss. Even if both parents have normal hearing, the dormant genetic predisposition can be active in their children.

If only one parent — or a new mutation — is the reason for hearing issues it’s known as autosomal dominant hearing loss.

X-linked hearing loss — when the X-chromosome mutates — is a far more common issue in men than women. Men only have one X-chromosome, while women have two (which makes the mutation less severe for women).

Genetic issues with the mitochondria don’t directly affect the ear but can do so indirectly. Mitochondria are the part of cells that generate energy and problems with them can negatively impact the workings of the inner ear.

Given the vast number of instructions in the human genome — it contains 3 billion base pairs of DNA — it’s a wonder things don’t go wrong more often. Only a few genetic wrong turns can introduce hearing loss.

The Brain Needs to Hear

One of the best reasons to stay on top of your hearing health and seek treatment for any issues with it is the link between hearing and cognitive performance. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that “losing” one’s hearing is often intertwined with weakening of one’s mind.
Several scientific studies have found that hearing loss, especially when untreated, can speed up changes to the brain that come with aging. This includes it literally shrinking—and untreated hearing loss can make this worse.


A 2019 study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, based on research by a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that spanned eight years, found that hearing loss was associated with a higher risk for cognitive deterioration.


“Our findings show that hearing loss is associated with new onset of subjective cognitive concerns which may be indicative of early stage changes in cognition. These findings may help identify individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline,” stated lead author Sharon Curhan, MD.
These most recent findings come after previous studies also pointed to changes in the brain that were driven, at least in part, by hearing loss.
One such study in 2014, carried out by Johns Hopkins Medicine and the National Institute on Aging, used MRI images of participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging — which has been active since 1958 — for analysis. It found that early intervention to limit hearing loss could be key to preventing permanent changes to the brain’s structure that, once occurring, cannot be reversed.


It seems clear that, in addition to just making life easier by enhancing one’s hearing, treating hearing issues will very likely have positive long-term effects on overall quality of life—and long-term health.

Bluetooth Pushes the Boundaries of What Hearing Aids Can Be

Although it isn’t exactly new technology, Bluetooth’s role in the new world of hearing aids should still be appreciated. The last decade has seen an explosion in the ways devices can communicate with one another wirelessly — which opens up access to the Internet — and hearing aids are most definitely part of this high-tech parade.


By creating a very localized wireless network, Bluetooth makes possible the knitting together of any combination of devices. TVs can communicate with computers, smartphones with refrigerators, doorbells with audio systems — and hearing aids with all the above.


With the computing power that modern hearing aids entail, this creates a wealth of possibilities. Audio from entertainment platforms can be streamed directly to a hearing aid, which cuts down on any distractions from other sounds that might be in the area. Being able to focus on specific sound sources in such situations has always been a challenge for hearing aid users.


The same is true for telephone conversations, which have also traditionally been a challenge. Now smartphones, via Bluetooth, eliminate the need to hold a phone to one’s ear to hear. The sound is streamed directly into the hearing aid. There are even wireless microphones that can be used to create hands-free phone calls.


Finally, with dedicated apps installed on any linked device, a hearing aid can be controlled and adjusted without the need to take it out of one’s ear and fumble with small knobs or buttons. Everything can be done by hand with a touchscreen or mouse, making obsolete what was until recently one of the most annoying aspects of having a hearing aid.


What Bluetooth has unleashed has brought a new day for hearing aid users.

Diabetes: Always Worth Being Aware Of

November is National Diabetes Month. Right after Halloween — and in time for Thanksgiving — it’s a reminder that this diet-sensitive condition can be a significant force in creating chronic health issues and poor outcomes.

Unfortunately, along with the better-known litany of health ramifications stemming from diabetes — especially when untreated or when patients ignore the guidelines of health professionals — hearing health is also on the list of consequences.

In fact, studies have shown that diabetics are at a significantly higher risk of developing hearing loss — regardless of age or other risk factors. So, as in the case of heart disease, kidney failure, and tissue damage, retaining one’s hearing is yet another reason to take diabetes seriously.

This is due to the inner ear’s significant need for healthy blood flow to function. The immediate need for energy and nutrients — in the form of glucose, which diabetes inhibits — is one factor in making the condition detrimental to hearing. Ears use a significant amount of energy converting sound waves into the electrical impulses sent to the brain — the process that constitutes our hearing what is around us.

The lasting damage that diabetes can wreak on blood vessels is the secondary concern, since this increasingly depletes the ability of the ears to get the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Along with getting treated and following medical advice regarding blood pressure and cholesterol, the best things to do to lessen the impact of diabetes is to eat as healthy a diet as possible (just cut out the junk food), cease using any tobacco products, and exercise. With regards to hearing, protecting ears from damage due to extreme loudness is even more important, since the ears’ ability to heal themselves is diminished by diabetes.

Seasonal Transition For Your Hearing

As the seasons change and the holidays approach, it’s transition time.

Depending on the circumstances that might mean dealing with hearing-related changes too.

For one thing, if you use hearing aids, then be prepared for a few environmental changes that will need to be adapted to.

Colder weather means windows that may have been open for months are now closed, which will change the acoustics in the house. Likewise, people — and pets — may be spending more time indoors, adding to the noise mix around you. This is especially acute during the holidays (don’t be shy about taking some breaks in a quiet room, since exiting a noisy environment will give your ears some recovery time).

Getting a forced-air heating system up and running again can mean raising a summer’s worth of dust into the air. This may cause some allergies to flare up, which can mean some fluid in the ears — and then corresponding hearing issues. Ditto the effects of cold and flu season, including ear infections. Time to break out the hats and earmuffs.

If there’s a snow blower in your future, then it’s time to break out the hearing protection too. A beanie will cover your ears and keep them warm, but it’s not going to really provide protection from the over 100 decibels of noise a snow blower can produce. At least invest in some good earplugs — though hearing protection earmuffs are even better.

There are different challenges for hearing aids in the cold weather too. Batteries might not last as long. Moisture in the form of sleet and snow — and perspiration from being bundled up — means you need to be extra diligent about drying hearing aids. Covers might help cut down on the problem directly, while a specialized dehumidifier that your hearing aids can spend the night in might be a good investment.