Most of us blithely use hair dryers or blast our favorite music on high volume. But what’s good for beauty and dance steps isn’t so great for our ears. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, about 28 million Americans between ages 20 and 69 have some hearing loss due to loud noises at work or play.
“Potentially, noises that are 85 decibels (dB) and louder can cause permanent hearing loss, especially as exposure times increase,” says Rachel A. Raphael, MA, CCC-A, an audiologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. A telephone dial tone is about 80 dB.
Some hearing loss is inevitable as we age, adds Raphael. Nor can we change the hearing-related genes we inherit. “But we can take care of our ears so not to hasten the process of losing hearing,” says Raphael. Loud sounds damage hair cells in the inner ear; once damaged, they cannot grow back.
Below are surprising ways we sabotage our hearing—and tips for protecting it.
Hairdryers. “The noise from hairdryers can exceed 100 dBs,” says Raphael. If you have to use one, hold it as far away from your ear as possible and operate it at its lowest—the quietest—speed. Pick a low dB model: Some manufacturers list the dB number on the packaging. Clean the filter often as well: dirt forces the motor to run less efficiently and more noisily.
Lawn mowers. Lawn mowers can make a nasty racket, up to 106 db. When you’re mowing, wear protective ear devices such as earplugs or earmuffs, or both, says Raphael: “Protective hearing devices range from over-the-counter types of roll up or flanged [ridged] plugs to custom-fit earplugs.” You can also buy a quiet lawnmower: Reel mowers are the quietest (and good exercise), and electric mowers are less noisy than gas ones. The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse offers a rundown on mowers and dB levels, www.nonoise.org.
Viagra—and other medications. “A possible side effect of taking Viagra [sildenafil] is hearing loss,” says Raphael. Drugs with names that end in mycin such a Gentamycin, sometimes used in cancer treatment, can also harm hair cells. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil,) and aspirin are all associated with hearing loss, according to a 2012 study of more than ten thousand women at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Using ibuprofen daily, for instance, increased the risk of hearing loss in women under age 50 by 48 percent. Ask your doctor to give you a baseline hearing test before taking these drugs and have your ears retested every six month to a year, says Raphael. If your hearing is stable, test every two years or immediately if you notice a hearing change.
Earwax. Packed wax can hinder hearing. An ear, nose, and throat doctor can clear your ears of wax, or you can use a syringe kit available at drugstores or online. “Never use Q-tips, except to clean outer ear curves,” says Raphael: “You may push the wax in deeper or puncture an eardrum.” You can also clean by pouring a capful of hydrogen peroxidein each ear, as long as your eardrums are not perforated. Let sit for 30 seconds, then rinse out with water.
Smoking. According to a 2011 study at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, exposure to tobacco smoke almost doubles the risk of hearing loss in adolescents. An earlier study of almost 4000 people published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that smokers were nearly 70 percent more likely to suffer hearing loss than non-smokers.
Loud music. Hardly surprising, but key to realize, say Raphael: “Music played loudly through ear buds can cause permanent hearing loss over time. The painless damage is often not noticed until it is too late. If others can hear the music playing out of your ear buds, it’s too loud.” An MP3 player is 105 dB at its maximum sound: The Hearing Health Foundation suggests that people listen at that level for no more than 15 minutes at a stretch.
Diabetes. According to a 2013 review of 13 studies involving more than 20,000 adults at the Niigata University Faculty of Medicine in Niigata, Japan, researchers found that people with diabetes were twice as likely to have hearing loss as those without diabetes. Although researchers can’t explain the correlation, some medications diabetics take such as diuretics, drugs that increase urine ou put, could affect hearing. Their recommendation: If you have diabetes, get your hearing tested.