Listen up to protect your hearing

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Dear Readers, 

Some things you wouldn’t want to miss: children laughing, birds singing, violins humming, a loved one’s murmurings.

Our ears are more than just two holes in the head. They’re the critical portals to a delicate, amazing system that lets us hear the world. Hearing affects  relationships, learning, just about everything.

But the number of Americans with hearing loss has doubled in recent years; one in five teens already has hearing damage. What can you do to protect your auditory health and well-being?

Try some online diagnostics─these should not take the place of professional testing, of course─ by clicking here or here or here. Then read on to learn more about safeguarding your ears and hearing, with some information segmented here by age:

Illustration by the National Institutes of Health

Dealing with tots’ ear infections

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They’re one of the most common health woes for kids and their parents, affecting as many as five out of six youngsters by age 3. Kids can’t always communicate about them. But parents quickly learn that when their toddlers tug at their ears, fuss, cry, are sleepless, have a fever, and may be clumsy and less responsive to sound, well, that ear infection is back.

Youngsters, with less developed immune systems and weak hygiene, pass lots of colds and other illnesses around. The systems that block bugs from sensitive areas of the ear, and those that drain those spots, also are smaller and less developed. Some youngsters suffer with allergies that stuff them up. Whether caused by allergies, bacteria or viruses, ear infections painfully inflame and swell ear channels and trap fluid behind the ear drum; some may not show symptoms but still trap fluids less visibly, particularly behind the ear drum; some are annoyingly persistent.


Pediatricians diagnose infections by peering deep into the ear with instruments like the otoscope or its cousin, the pneumatic otoscope, which blows a puff of air, to examine the ear drum and surrounding areas. If they’re red and inflamed, they’re likely infected.

Doctors treat kids first with mild drugs like acetaminophin or ibuprofen─not aspirin, which poses risk for Reyes syndrome─ to deal with the pain; parents may be told to apply warm compresses to the ear. Doctors then wait to see if the infection goes away in a day or two, rather than reflexively administering antibiotics.

That’s because many ear infections are viral or allergy caused. Those will not respond to antibiotics, which can cause side effects, be expensive, and ineffective.

Physicians also are aware now that antibiotic overuse has become a major health care problem. It’s robbing very sick patients of powerful treatments, as antibiotic-resistant bugs flourish; hospitals and other facilities are battling antibiotic-resistant infections that sweep through their facilities, making ill patients even sicker and killing all too many.

If an ear infection lasts a few days, it may be bacteria caused; antibiotics then would be called for. With infants younger than six months, kids with high fever, and in children with special conditions (cleft palate, Down syndrome, immune disorders), earlier antibiotic intervention also may be required.

When ear infections are persistent, pediatricians may consider antibiotic regimens.Some children benefit from having small tubes surgically implanted to ventilate the area near the ear drum; some may be helped by having their adenoids removed.


Meantime, parents can take steps to reduce their kids’ chances of getting ear infections. Experts recommend they keep kids away from those who are sick, encourage hand washing, and avoid giving babies a pacifier after six months or letting them sleep with a bottle. Moms may want to breastfeed children for six months or longer. Kids should be kept away from cigarette smoke.

Parents also should not underestimate the importance of getting their kids vaccinated─for measles, mumps, the flu, and for Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus, a common cause of ear infections.

Good news

There are indications that aggressive vaccination, reduction in antibiotic overuse, more common breastfeeding of kids, parents’ foregoing smoking in the home, and other preventive measures arehelping to reduce kids’ ear infections, the New York Times says, citing, among other evidence, studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals. As Dr. Perry Klass posted recently on the Times’ “Well” blog, this decrease is, “a happy pediatric story of the convergence of improved preventive measures, healthier environments for young babies and the medical profession’s trying to be scrupulous about limiting interventions.”

By the way, moms and dads: Be sure to get your kids’ hearing tested, early and often. Hearing problems can affect youngsters’ development, as well as their academic and social success. Ifallergies are leading to infections or other problems with your children’s ears, work with your pediatrician or a specialist to deal with the issues before they worsen and lead to other problems.

As youngsters grow and participate in athletics, especially aquatic sports, they may struggle with “swimmer’s ear,” a condition that also does not require antibiotics and for which there are helpful treatments.

Turn down the sound, turn up the healthy lifestyle

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To best benefit your ears and hearing, adults of all ages need to turn down the noise, and turn up healthy activities like exercise, good diet, not smoking, and using medications carefully.

But, starting in their teens, all too many Americans sadly neglect their hearing. They crank up the noise, whether with live or recorded music, at movies and sporting events, and at work and play.

As this chart from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows, noise exceeding 85 decibels can be damaging. It’s easy to encounter as traffic din, the clamor of home tools or mowers, and, of course, as the cacophony in the workplace.

Workplace safety

Regulators have gotten more insistent about protecting workers’ hearing at industrial and construction sites. The U.S. military expends energy trying to ensure service personnel don’t suffer hearing losseswhen exposed to heavy equipment, and munitions. Still, many Iraq and Afghanistan vets have returned home with damaged ears.

Professionals working in open-space offices may not be so careful about keeping the volume down on devices and headsets they don for privacy and noise reduction. Guys who take a work break to play video games may not realize they are deafening themselves.

Hearing damage

Experts say excessive noise can damage hearing−both in prolonged exposure and in brief really loud blasts. Listeners may benefit by taking quiet breaks, especially after their ears have gotten slammed, say at a 3-D theater showing a fantasy-action film with a roaring sound track.

Noise damage can be lasting and irreversible. As statistics show (see By the Numbers), this country is in its third generation (starting with the baby boomers) of devotees of rock’n’roll and other loud tunes. For a nation that’s also rapidly aging, the auditory future isn’t promising.

It is beneficial for hearing health to take steps that are good for overall health.The highly sensitive components in the inner ear, experts say, flourish in healthy people who exercise (boosting circulation), eat well (holding down blood pressure-increasing salt), keep stress in check, and wisely use medications, some of which can cause hearing loss. It’s key to avoid smoking. You also can, of course, avoid excessive noise, wear protective gear, and turn the sound down. In time, such preventive steps might really matter.

Sound ways for seniors to stay tuned in

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Just as they have the leisure to take in concerts, movies and plays, many seniors enjoy these pastimes less because their hearing begins to fail. Presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) afflicts one in three Americans ages 65 to 74; half of those 75 and older experience hearing problems.

The degenerative effects of age can damage the inner ear mechanisms that aid in hearing and balance. Years of exposure to excess noise takes its toll. So do certain ototoxic medications, stress, high blood pressure, and diabetes and other diseases. An estimated 50 million Americans, many of them older, suffer from tinnitus: occasional or persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears; tinnitus can’t be cured but can be managed.

Responding poorly

Many seniors respond poorly to hearing loss, failing to seek help from friends, family, and experts. Instead, they allow themselves to slip into injurious social isolation. This can contribute to depression, cognitive decline, and even the onset of dementia.

Experts say that too few seniors who could be helped  seek or use hearing aids. These devices can be expensive, and often aren’t covered under private insurance plans or Medicare. They require testing to determine which devices would be most helpful, and to adjust them. Users complain that even after they spend a lot, and undergo time-consuming care, they get sound that’s unsuitable, particularly in noisy spaces or when dealing with certain frequencies or volumes.

Federal officials say that scams or issues with hearing aid sales are too common, so the Federal Trade Commission, for example, offers seniors guidance on wise shopping; the FTC shares with the Food and Drug Administration oversight over the devices.

Better days ahead?

Technological advances may hold promise for seniors with better, cheaper, more accessible hearing aids, writes Paula Span in the New York Times column, “The New Old Age.” She says policy-makers are reconsidering if the devices should be covered under Medicare and whether regulators should reexamine rules to open up markets and shopping around for them.

Here’s hoping your ears carry a dazzling world to you in the healthiest ways!

Photo by English language Wikipedia user Peter Ellis



Dealing with tots’ ear infections

Turn down the sound, turn up the healthy lifestyle

Sound ways for seniors to stay tuned in

On balance, the ears matter

Why do people jam sticks in their ears?






10 million

Number of people in the U.S. who suffer from noise-related hearing loss.




Percent of U.S. military veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who came home with hearing loss or tinnitus.



$11 to $50


Estimated cost of one round of prescription antibiotics to treat mild ear infection of typical two-year-old.


On balance, the ears matter

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Besides allowing us to hear, the parts of the inner ear play a critical role in giving us our sense of balance. Our inner ears also can get out of whack: Four out of 10 Americans at some point in their lives will suffer dizziness or vertigoof sufficient concern to send them to the doctor.

These episodes may be linked to medications, blood pressure, and inner ear disorders, or with perceptual problems related to the ears.Meniere’s Disease is a common balance-afflicting condition traced to the inner ear. It also may be marked with a ringing or buzz (tinnitus), and repeated, unexplained episodes of dizziness or vertigo

There are multiple therapies for balance disorders, depending on the severity and frequency of occurrence for patients. These include antibiotics, steroid treatments, and medications that many know as drugs for motion sickness. Doctors encourage patients to avoid driving, and to safeguard themselves and their homes for falls.

The New York Times recently reported that some seniors who suffer from a dizzying condition known as  Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo may find “an easy fix.” They may benefit from a five-minute method of re-positioning their heads, causing loosened calcium carbonate crystals in the inner ear to resettle, thus ending the brain’s perception that the patient is spinning around.

Just say no: why do people jam things in their ears?

Ask the experts and you’ll be told:  Never put anything smaller than your elbows in your ear canals.

Americans clearly fail to heed that advice: one of the best-selling health-related products is the ear swab. Experts are confounded why they’re so popular─they push ear wax the wrong way (toward rather than away from the ear drum); they compact a naturally occurring, protective substance that is supposed to be left alone. Further, if the swabs scratch an itch in the ear, that only worsens it, irritating sensitive skin.

Although experts say they see a parade of patients who have harmed themselves with them and need care, the swabs have become a cultural fixture.

They’re also not the weirdest ear care tool around. Again, though experts have gone out of their way to discourage their use, so-called “ear candles” persist as a treatment by some. It doesn’t work, and the potential for damage is real, experts say.


Patrick Malone
Patrick Malone & Associates