Examining solutions to hearing loss

Many of us know someone who always has the television blaring or has difficulty participating in conversations because of hearing loss.

Hearing loss can be more than just an annoyance; it can be a safety hazard if you do not hear cars or other vehicles.

For people socially isolated and stressed by hearing loss associated with aging, there is increased dementia risk.

Hearing problems can be hereditary or be caused by ear infection, abnormal bone growth in the ear, tumors, ruptured eardrum, chronic exposure to loud noises or earwax blockage.

Some hearing loss is preventable. People prone to ear infections after swimming or other activities can wear earplugs to prevent problems.

Early treatment of abnormal bone growth can prevent hearing loss. When doing a job that is loud (at work or at home), wear hearing protection. Noisy recreational activities (e.g., concerts, snowmobiling, target shooting) require protection, too. Turn down the volume when using headphones or earbuds; if the person standing next to you can hear what you are listening to, it’s too loud.

Earwax moisturizes your ear canal, helps protect it from skin infections, and gets washed away when you bathe or wash your hair. But if one or both of your ears make excess earwax or you have oddly shaped ear canals, there can be obstruction.

If you suspect blockage, see your health care provider, who can remove the wax and prescribe preventive eardrops if you need them. Do not try to remove earwax on your own. Sticking any foreign object in your ear, even a cotton swab, is risky.

How can you tell if you have hearing loss? Symptoms include frequently asking people to repeat themselves, turning your ear to hear sounds better, losing track of conversations, listening to TV at a high volume, and needing to focus on others’ faces to be able to understand them. Ringing and pain in the ears may also be signs of hearing problems.

In infants and children, signs of hearing loss are quite different than in adults. Infants are tested for hearing problems at the hospital following birth.

However, if an infant does not startle with loud noises or look for the source of noises by 6 months of age, see a health care provider for further testing. The same goes for children who have delayed or unclear speech, seem to only hear some sounds or frequently have trouble following directions.

Evaluation for suspected hearing loss will include an examination and general screening tests, and may include additional hearing tests. Other tests may be necessary to determine the cause of hearing loss.

Early detection may prevent further hearing loss, though that is not always possible.

There are many strategies to cope with hearing loss. Hearing aids, assistive listening devices and cochlear implants can help with remaining hearing, and learning American Sign Language can help some people with communication.

Not everyone who would benefit from a hearing aid wants one.

An acquaintance of mine said she did not wear hers because “it makes things too noisy.” She lived with impaired hearing for so long that when she got a hearing aid, life at normal volume seemed loud.

Other people may resist getting hearing aids because they associate them with aging.

Hearing aid technology has greatly improved. There are many styles of hearing aids. Some are incredibly tiny and can be programmed to increase the volume of only the sound frequencies where you have loss.

Audiologists can teach people how to make the most of the sounds they do hear. Improved hearing or new ways of communicating can lead to better connections with people and improved quality of life.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your comments and column suggestions to drhideg@ghc.org.

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