Healthy Hearing

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Protect your hearing and know when to see a physician for a diagnosis and help.

Pamela Bohrer, MD, is a board-certified otologist (ear) surgeon with a fellowship in hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo. She has been helping Kaiser Permanente members with their ear health at the Santa Rosa Medical Center since 1995. Today she walks us through risks to the ear, hearing loss, and how to best care for our ears.

What are the top reasons for hearing loss?

Far and away the most common reason for hearing loss is age-related deterioration. We are born with our best ears, and hearing gets worse with time. Just like the cartilage in your knees, your hearing erodes as time goes on. And, just like one can be predisposed to high blood pressure or other conditions through a family history, the same is true of hearing deterioration.

However, sensory neural hearing loss is worse with exposure to noise. Most people know that being at a loud rock concert is bad, but it’s also damaging to have constant, lower levels of noise, such as listening to loud music with your headphones, using a power mower, or firing up your blender for your smoothie. If voices must be raised for you to hear, then it’s too loud.

What are other risks to the ear?

Essentially, the ear has various parts; the ear canal, the middle ear, and inner ear. Nerve damage happens in the inner ear, closest to the brain. Another common problem is infection in the outer or middle ear. Infections are exquisitely painful, but respond well to antibiotics. If the ear drum bursts, there is nearly instant relief, like when a boil or pimple bursts. Also, the ear drum is a super thin layer of skin that heals very quickly, like your hand if it gets a cut. But chronic infections can lead to a hole in the eardrum that doesn’t heal, and that can lead to hearing loss and infections.

When should one see a physician?

Ear pain, drainage, a ringing or buzzing in the ears that is called tinnitus, or hearing loss are red flags, and you should contact your physician. It’s also important to see a physician if there is significant change in your hearing, especially if the change is sudden, but also if the hearing loss has been getting worse for a period of time.

If you have an evaluation and hearing aids are recommended, get them right away. Sometimes people put off hearing aids and can be in denial for a long time, barely getting by. But the brain loses the ability to understand speech after a while. So, hearing aids are important to allow you to not only hear but to understand others.

What are hearing aids like today?

They are lots better than in the old days. The technology is so advanced. It changes every year, sort of like an iPhone.

How can we be kind to our hearing?

Don’t over-clean your ears. Rather, let the wax do it. Ear wax is acidic, and it naturally protects your ear canal from dust, debris, infections, and fungus. Q-tips are too small, can go too far into the ear canal, and are too drying. So clean by wrapping a bit of toilet paper around your finger, which is the largest thing that should go in your ear. And watch out for sharp fingernails!

Wear soft earplugs any time that the noise gets too loud; they fit easily in a purse or a wallet so you can keep them handy at all times. And lower the headphone volume. It’s fun to listen to loud music, but terrible for your hearing. Protect those amazing and wonderful ears, and they’ll work well for a long time.

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