Growing older, as you’d expect, ups the odds that your hearing will be compromised. Over half of Americans are dealing with age-related hearing loss, the Mayo Clinic says.
But aging’s just one of the many and sometimes-surprising risks to hearing. Some causes are out of our control: Think genetics and some health conditions.
There are, however, common risks you can duck or protect yourself from, at work and play, and so we’ve gathered these tips about avoidable or manageable causes of hearing loss and how we can protect ourselves.
1. Exposure to loud noises
Loud sounds can seriously damage hearing. You can’t always control where you work or live, but knowledge can create opportunities to change a harmful environment or to protect yourself.
Everyday noises from lawnmowers, police and fire sirens, motorcycles, sports events, snowmobiling, carpentry, fireworks and listening to loud music through headphones and earbuds can hurt crucial cells in your inner ear, the Mayo Clinic says.
Also, noise-related hearing damage can take place from exposure to a sudden, short blast of sound — a gunshot blast, for instance, or a burst of noise from a loud horn. And, hearing damage can happen over time when you’re living, playing or working around loud noise.
Where you can anticipate noise — at work, shooting a gun or mowing the lawn, for instance — wear ear protection. This short Home Depot video reviews the surprising variety of types of hearing protection, pros and cons, and uses.
2. Some medications
About 600 prescription or over-the-counter drugs are “ototoxic,” meaning that they’ve been linked to hearing loss, balance problems or tinnitus (ringing in the ear), according to AARP. These include medications used to treat pain, heart problems, infections and other issues.
One common culprit: over-the-counter pain relievers (although low-dose aspirin is considered safe).
Some of the problems caused by these drugs are irreversible. With others, the issue resolves if you stop using the drug, AARP says.
Also risky: antibiotics known as aminoglycosides. Blood testing can be done while taking these drugs to monitor drug levels. But for people with a certain genetic mutation, even a single dose can cause permanent hearing loss.
3. Loud music
Loud music can hurt your hearing — even permanently in some cases. Just a few minutes of exposure at a rock concert can cause hearing loss, says this infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At rock concerts, stay away from the speakers. Wear earplugs while the band is playing, and remember: Band members probably are using earplugs too.
4. Certain illnesses and conditions
- Mumps can damage the cochlea, a cavity in the inner ear which has tiny hair cells that allow nerves to interpret sounds to the brain.
- Nerve damage from measles also can impair hearing, according to Hoffmann Audiology in Irvine, California.
Good to know: Even sexually transmitted diseases can affect hearing.
Impacted earwax (cerumen impaction) is what you can get when earwax builds up and blocks the inner ear. It isn’t often dangerous, says Cleveland Clinic.
But be concerned if you experience a loss of hearing, pain or itchiness in the ear, tinnitus, dizziness or a feeling of fullness in your ears.
Severe symptoms to watch for — and reasons to get medical help immediately — include a persistent earache, fever, drainage or a foul odor from your ear.
6. Using cotton swabs
Can using cotton swabs really hurt your ears or is that just a silly rumor?
Harmless-looking cotton swabs actually can hurt your hearing, according to Dr. Yu-Tung Wong, of the Otolaryngology and Neurotology departments at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
Using a cotton swab can push earwax deeper into the ear canal, creating hearing loss, Wong says.
Swabs have punctured ear drums, causing hearing loss and other serious problems, even among people who are trying to be careful, he adds.
What’s more, cotton swabs can increase the production of earwax, Cleveland Clinic says. That happens when swabs stimulate tiny hairs in the ear canal, signaling to earwax-producing ear glands to pump up production.
7. Poor nutrition
Hearing loss is among many diseases and adverse health conditions connected with poor nutrition.
In fact, it’s the fifth leading cause of years lived with disability. Poor nutrition interferes with speech and has been linked to anxiety and depression. In children it is associated with poor school performance and problems with speech, language and cognition.
Swap out carbs, sugar and unhealthy types of fat for high-quality plant-based foods to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The goal is to keep your blood flow strong to protect your hearing.
8. Viral infections
Infections in the inner or outer ear are another hearing loss risk, says the World Health Organization (WHO).
An infection can even rupture (or “break”) the eardrum. That’s called a tympanic membrane perforation and it can result in hearing loss, the Mayo Clinic says.
The WHO lists, among causes of hearing loss and deafness, prenatal intrauterine infections, severe jaundice and low birth weight in newborns, chronic ear infections in childhood and other diseases throughout our lives.