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March to the beat of your own eardrums
Mark Kishel

When it comes to hearing, a majority of us walk through life unaware of the dangers we pose to our eardrums. We forge ahead, staying fit through regular exercise, conducting annual physicals and developing healthier eating habits, without assuring that our hearing is in optimum health. Consequently, this lapse in judgment could lead to hearing loss.

Painless and progressive, hearing loss is a product of our modern lives. Every time we attend a sporting event or concert, or complete tasks around the house such as mowing the lawn, we expose our ears to loud environments. These events, while sometimes fun and necessary, generate sounds at or above harmful noise levels, which opens our ears to potential permanent damage.

Hearing loss can occur at any age, and with greater access to technology and mobile devices, younger people are now more susceptible than ever. A recent report from the World Health Organization confirms this fact, finding that more than a billion teenagers and young adults around the world are at risk of permanently damaging their hearing. Hearing loss, regardless of age, poses a threat to the daily lives of those affected, making it difficult for them to enjoy social gatherings with friends and family and heed dangerous warning sirens and alarms.

Yet all those consequences can be avoided if we detect the underlying issue and take precautions. Below are six tips to protect your hearing:

1. Minimize noise. If you have to shout over the noise around you, you’re likely jeopardizing your hearing. To be cautious, maintain a volume level of 75 decibels (dB), which is the noise equivalent of a vacuum or dishwasher. For comparison, using power tools for 15 minutes without ear protection can create lasting damage to your hearing.

2. Wear hearing protection. Be proactive and use sound-canceling earplugs or headphones. Made of foam or rubber, earplugs go in your ear and can reduce noise by 15 to 30 dB. Headphones, which fit completely over your ears, can reduce sounds by similar levels. Last, carry your hearing protection with you if you find yourself constantly around loud environments.

3. Don’t smoke. Studies have shown that tobacco use can increase a person’s risk for hearing loss. If you smoke, preserving your hearing is simply another reason to quit. For nonsmokers, exposure to secondhand smoke can have similar consequences.

4. Lower the volume. Turn down the volume when listening to the radio or using headphones with your mobile device. If people nearby can hear what is playing in your car or on your phone, chances are your volume is too loud.

5. Remove earwax correctly. A buildup of wax in your ears can suppress sound, causing earaches, ringing in the ears and temporary or permanent hearing loss. Despite popular belief, you should avoid cotton swabs to remove excess earwax — they can push wax even deeper into your ear canal. Instead, use an at-home irrigation kit to gently clean your ears in a safe way.

6. Test your hearing. Have your hearing tested once a year. If you notice sudden changes in your hearing, see an otolaryngologist or an audiologist right away. Scheduling an annual checkup is especially critical if you are constantly in loud environments, have problems hearing or understanding conversations, experience regularly ringing in your ears or have a history of  family members with hearing loss.

Kishel, M.D., FAAP, is regional vice president and senior clinical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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