Leading consultant Matthew Trotter looks at out how modern life could be affecting your ears – and what you can do to protect them
According to Action on Hearing Loss, more than 11 million people in the UK live with some form of hearing loss, and by 2035 that’s estimated to rise to a staggering 15.6 million – a fifth of the population. What’s more, research suggests those suffering hearing impairment are also more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
And don’t assume hearing loss only affects older people. There are many causes, from childhood through to old age, from conditions such as congenital loss, infection, glue ear and otosclerosis. The latter is caused by new bone growth around one of the little bones in the middle ear and can limit its movement and so the transmission of sound. It often runs in families and can be treated with either hearing aids or surgery.
Remember, taking care of your hearing is a small price to pay for healthy ears – even if you’re young and your hearing is fine. Here are a few basic tips to help keep your ears at optimum health:
Exposure to loud noises for long periods could put you at risk of permanent hearing loss. Tinnitus – or ringing in the ears – can be an early warning sign of hearing damage. “The most worrying thing is that you won’t know if you’ve done permanent damage until it’s already happened,” said Matthew.
“It is a good idea to take a break from loud noises to allow your fragile inner ears to recover.”
Try to limit exposure to loud noise – as a simple rule if you’re listening to music with headphones and others can hear, it’s too loud. If you’re in a noisy environment you can always use earplugs. If you use plugs when sleeping, clean them regularly and ensure they’re snug but not tight, or you risk infection.
Most people don’t have a problem when water enters their ears. However some are susceptible to itchy ears when they are regularly exposed to water and can be more vulnerable to Otitis externa, or ‘swimmer’s ear’. Symptoms include ear pain, itching, discharge, tenderness and even a degree of hearing loss.
If you’re a keen swimmer or spend a lot of time in the pool, then there are some things you can do to protect yourself from swimmer’s ear. Wear earplugs to keep water out of your ear canal. Use special eardrops that help dry out your ear canal after swimming.
Ears are normally self-cleaning so trying to stop earwax is as futile as trying to prevent the production of urine. Sticking cotton buds or pen tops into the ear simply pushes the wax in too far and stops it coming out of the ear – so don’t do it! “Ear candles supposedly help remove wax,” said Matthew, “ but there’s no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of the method. A popular saying in ENT is: ‘Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!’ It is much better for ear care if you just clean the outside of your ears with a damp flannel.”
Eustachian tubes, between the middle ear and back of the nose let air in and out of the middle ear when we experience pressure changes. Most people who have been on a plane notice their ears often ‘pop’ when descending and this is the tube opening to release pressure.
If the tube blocks, which can occur with colds or allergies, then the ears can become very painful with pressure changes. It may be advisable to try to avoid flying when you have a cold but a nasal decongestant can be very useful if taken just before flying in those who have a history of problems with their ears when flying. People who scuba dive often have the same problem and the same treatment may be useful.
Did you know that exercise is good for your ears? Cardio exercises like walking, running or cycling get the blood pumping to all parts of your body, including the ears. This helps the ears’ internal parts stay healthy and working to their maximum potential.