Hearing Loss

Causes and Prevention

Causes of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss happens for many reasons. Some people lose their hearing slowly as they age. This condition is called presbycusis. Doctors do not know why presbycusis happens, but it seems to run in families.

Another cause is the ear infection otitis media, which can lead to long-term hearing loss if it is not treated.

Hearing loss can also result from taking certain medications. "Ototoxic" medications damage the inner ear, sometimes permanently. Some ototoxic drugs include medicines used to treat serious infections, cancer, and heart disease. Some antibiotics are ototoxic. Even aspirin at some dosages can cause problems. Check with your doctor if you notice a problem while taking a medication.

Heredity can cause hearing loss, but not all inherited forms of hearing loss take place at birth. Some forms can show up later in life. In otosclerosis, which is thought to be a hereditary disease, an abnormal growth of bone prevents structures within the ear from working properly. A severe blow to the head also can cause hearing loss.

Loud Noise Can Cause Hearing Loss

One of the most common causes of hearing loss is loud noise. Loud noise can permanently damage the inner ear. Loud noise also contributes to tinnitus, which is a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing, or buzzing sound in the ears.

Approximately 15 percent (26 million) of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds or noise at work or in leisure activities.

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Avoiding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable, and you can take precautions to help avoid this type of hearing loss.

Potential damage from noise is caused by the loudness of the sound and the amount of time you are exposed to it. The intensity, or loudness, of a sound is measured in units called decibels, abbreviated dB. An ordinary conversation is approximately 60 dB; city traffic noise can reach 85 dB; and a firecracker can reach an ear-piercing 150 dB.

Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can damage your inner ear and cause hearing loss. Sounds from gas lawnmowers, snow blowers, motorcycles, firecrackers, and loud music often are above 85 decibels. Protect your hearing by avoiding noises at or above 85 decibels.

When you are involved in a loud activity, wear earplugs or other hearing protective devices. Lower the volume on personal stereo systems and televisions. Be sure to protect children's ears too.

Although awareness of noise levels is important, you should also be aware of how far away you are from loud noise and how long you are exposed to it. Avoid noises that are too loud, that are too close, and that last too long. If you experience tinnitus or have trouble hearing after noise exposure, then you have been exposed to too much noise.

Other Ways to Prevent Hearing Loss

There are other ways to prevent hearing loss.

  • If earwax blockage is a problem for you, ask you doctor about treatments you can use at home-- such as mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial ear drops to soften earwax.
  • If you suspect that you may have a hole in your eardrum, you should consult a doctor before using such products. A hole in the eardrum can result in hearing loss and fluid discharge.
  • Ear infections or otitis media is most common in children, but adults can get it, too. You can help prevent upper respiratory infections -- and a resulting ear infection -- by washing your hands frequently.
  • Ask your doctor about how to help prevent flu-related ear infections. If you still get an ear infection, see a doctor immediately before it becomes more serious.
  • If you take medications, ask your doctor if your medication is ototoxic, or potentially damaging to the ear. Ask if other medications can be used instead. If not, ask if the dosage can be safely reduced. Sometimes it cannot. However, your doctor should help you get the medication you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.