AARP Eye Center
l Hearing loss can be caused by earwax buildup. Use a washcloth, not a cotton swab, to safely wipe it away and protect the eardrum.
More than 48 million Americans have some type of hearing loss that seriously disrupts their lives. “That includes 1 in 6 baby boomers and two-thirds of those over 70,” says Frank Lin, M.D., associate professor of otolaryngology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. Experts expect that number to rise along with the gray tsunami of aging boomers.
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There are two main types of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss develops when something — congestion from a bad cold, an ear infection, a perforated eardrum — blocks sound signals from reaching the inner ear. Sometimes only one ear is affected. Hearing usually returns to normal after the problem is treated.
Far more serious is sensorineural hearing loss, which involves damage in the inner ear. It can be triggered by loud noise as well as aging. Many people gradually lose some hearing as they get older.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Here are 10 unexpected causes of hearing loss and steps you can take to reverse, reduce or prevent these conditions.
Conductive hearing loss — which often can be corrected
1. Earwax buildup
This waxy substance, secreted by glands in the outer ear canal, prevents harmful substances — germs, dust and dirt — from reaching the eardrum. Too little wax and your ears are dry, itchy and a breeding ground for infection. Too much can lead to painful earaches and hearing loss, and, in some cases, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears).
What to do: Usually, wax moves naturally to the tip of the canal, where it can be safely wiped away with a washcloth. If this doesn’t happen, your doctor can remove it. Don't try to do it yourself with a cotton swab, pencil or the tip of your glasses. You may push it deeper or puncture your eardrum.
2. Perforated eardrum
Infection, explosive noise near the ear, quick changes in air pressure or poking around with a cotton swab can puncture the thin tissue (the eardrum) that separates the outer ear from the middle ear, leading to pain and temporary hearing loss.
What to do: Although a punctured eardrum usually heals on its own in about two months, it’s best to have your ear checked by an otolaryngologist — an ENT doctor, who specializes in treating the ear, nose and throat. Meanwhile, keep the ears dry; a warm, dry compress and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help relieve pain.
3. Ear infection
Though far more common in the preschool set, ear infections because of bacteria or viruses can follow a bout with allergies or the common cold in adults, too. If the eustachian tube, which connects the ear to the throat, is blocked by swelling and inflammation, fluid buildup becomes a breeding ground for infection. The result: ear congestion, pressure, pain, fever or temporary hearing loss.