Surprising Ways to Protect Your Hearing

We all know to cover our ears around loud noises, but are you familiar with these lesser-known ways to protect hearing? From air travel to oral hygiene, don’t let these unexpected causes of hearing loss catch you off guard. 

Control Ear Wax Buildup

Ear wax is important—it keeps our ears protected and moisturized. But when the body produces too much, it can build up, become impacted and prevent sound from entering the ear. Ear blockage from wax is actually one of the most common causes of conductive hearing loss, or hearing loss that occurs when sound is blocked from reaching the inner ear.

The good news? This type of hearing loss is usually temporary; if the impacted ear wax is removed in a timely manner, hearing can normally be restored. However, ear wax left untreated for too long may lead to more permanent hearing loss.

Think your ear wax is out of control? Your doctor can determine if the wax in your ears is normal and perform a simple procedure to clear up any blockage.

You can also treat ear wax buildup at home, but ditch the cotton swabs—these tend to push wax deeper into your ear and create buildup near the eardrum. Try this healthier alternative: Add a few drops of hydrogen peroxide to a damp cotton ball and apply it to the affected ear. Tilt your head so that the affected ear faces up (this allows the fluid to drip into your ear canal). Wait a few minutes, then tilt your head down so that the fluid and wax can drain out of your ear. Consult your doctor before attempting this or any other method for clearing wax buildup.

Stuffy Nose? Avoid Air Travel

If you’ve ever traveled by plane, you’ve probably experienced a “popping” sensation in your ears during takeoff and landing.

This effect occurs thanks to our Eustachian tubes, passageways on each side of the head that connect the upper part of the throat to the middle ear. They help drain fluid and equalize air pressure between the nose and ear. As air pressure rapidly builds and drops during flight, our ears feel blocked and it becomes difficult to hear. When our ears “pop,” it’s a sign that the Eustachian tubes are doing their job of equalizing air pressure in the middle ear.

Typically, chewing gum, swallowing and yawning help to open the Eustachian tubes and restore normal hearing. However, flying while congested can create complications that lead to temporary or, in some cases, permanent hearing loss.

Congestion causes swelling to the tissues lining the Eustachian tubes and makes it impossible to equalize air pressure, leading to severe ear pain. When this occurs, your ears won’t pop after landing, and you may experience difficulty hearing for several days. In more serious cases, the pressure may cause your eardrum to burst. 

It’s best to avoid air travel if you have a sinus infection or cold (to not only spare your ears, but your fellow passengers, as well!), but if you must fly, there are a few steps you can take to protect your hearing and minimize discomfort:

  • Take a nasal decongestant. These medications help reduce swelling and open the passageway of the Eustachian tube. It’s a good idea to take the decongestant 2 to 3 hours before your anticipated flight arrival time so they are most effective during the landing period, when pressure tends to be the most severe. 
  • Keep candy handy. In mild cases, sucking and swallowing sweets may help to open the Eustachian tubes. 
  • Try EarPlanes®. These pressure-regulating ear plugs are designed to reduce discomfort during air travel.

Maintain a Healthy Mouth

Our oral health can affect other areas of our body—including our ears. Evidence shows that warding off cavities may help ward off hearing loss, too. Though a direct link between oral health and hearing health has not yet been established, good hearing health depends on good blood circulation—and that’s where poor oral hygiene can get in the way.

Nerve cells in the inner ear rely on the proper circulation of blood and nutrients to be able to translate noise collected by the outer ear into sound signals for the brain. If you have harmful bacteria in your mouth as a result of tooth decay or gum disease, the bacteria can enter your bloodstream and cause the blood vessels to narrow and swell, disrupting circulation. Without adequate blood flow, the hair cells become damaged and, eventually, destroyed. This type of damage is known as sensorineural hearing loss.

To protect your pearly whites, the American Dental Association recommends brushing your teeth for two minutes, two times per day, and flossing at least once per day. You should also visit your dentist regularly to prevent and treat any oral diseases. 

Reduce Stress

Stress in small doses has its advantages, but excessive stress can be crippling to your mental and physical health. Chronic stress saps energy and weakens the immune system, leaving us more prone to all kinds of health issues—ranging from headaches and frequent colds to long-term illnesses such as heart disease.

But how does stress affect hearing? Similar to oral hygiene, it all traces back to blood circulation. The body’s response to high stress levels triggers an overproduction of adrenaline that can reduce blood flow to the inner ear—or disrupt it completely—and result in sensorineural hearing loss.

Evidence also reveals that tinnitus may increase when we’re under stress. A 2015 study of the relationship between stress and tinnitus found that almost 54 percent of those with tinnitus developed the condition during a stressful period in their lives—and nearly 53 percent said that their tinnitus increased during stressful periods.

Significant long-term stress often leads to the development of hypertension (high blood pressure), which is another condition linked to hearing loss and tinnitus. Hypertension has been shown to accelerate age-related hearing loss and is a common cause of pulsatile tinnitus, an affliction characterized by a pulsing noise in the ear.

While too much stress can result in hearing damage and tinnitus, living with these conditions may also augment the stress in your life. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope with emotional stress, whether that involves exercising regularly, spending more time in nature or seeking the support of a therapist.