Tinnitus: can it be prevented?
This year, February 5th marks the beginning of Tinnitus Week (2018), an annual international event that aims to raise awareness of a condition affecting an estimated one in 10 people.
Tinnitus is when you hear sounds from inside your body as opposed to an external source. It’s often described as a ringing sound, but that’s just one of the possible effects. In fact tinnitus may present itself as one or more of several sounds such as buzzing, humming, grinding, hissing, clicking, whistling or sizzling. It can be constant or intermittent, loud or quiet, low, medium or high pitched. Some people even say it sounds like music.
Tinnitus is more common in people aged over 65, but it can affect people of all ages, including children. And while it may not be a harmful condition, those with severe tinnitus say it affects their quality of life. Even the mild form may affect your concentration as well as cause sleeping problems and depression.
What causes it?
There are several possible causes of tinnitus. Older people may experience it because their auditory nerves have become less sensitive. Others can develop tinnitus because they have been exposed to excessive noise. You can develop tinnitus if you have a build-up of earwax that blocks the ear or if you have a middle ear infection, glue ear or perforated ear drum. Medical conditions linked to tinnitus include anaemia, an overactive thyroid gland, otosclerosis (hearing loss caused by an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear) and Ménière’s disease, which affects part of the inner ear.
Less commonly it may develop after a head injury or exposure to a sudden or very loud noise (an explosion, for instance). Some medicines can occasionally cause it too. Some people say their tinnitus also becomes worse when they’re stressed.
There are treatments available that may help you manage tinnitus, so if you think you may be affected by it see your GP or ask your local pharmacist for advice.
Protect your ears
According to the British Tinnitus Association, tinnitus can’t always be prevented and there are many reasons why people are affected by it. But the charity also claims there are things you can do to protect yourself from tinnitus in certain situations, including the following:
Avoid infections If you use earplugs or hearing aids, try to keep them clean, as anything you put in your ear can cause an infection, and tinnitus can be caused by ear infections.
Keep them clean Your ears clean themselves naturally, but if you’re worried about a build-up of wax, talk to your GP or your local pharmacist. Don’t try to clean them with cotton buds, as these can make the problem worse. Hardened wax can be softened with drops you can buy over the counter at your local Careway pharmacy, and once softened, the wax may release itself. If not, you can have it removed by a hearing healthcare provider.
Manage stress levels Tinnitus can sometimes start when you’re anxious or stressed, so take some time out for yourself every day and do something that helps reduce your stress levels. Stay fit, eat well and enjoy life.
Use earplugs If you’re going to be exposed to loud sounds over 85dB, you need hearing protection such as ear plugs. This is the level at which noise becomes unsafe if you don’t use hearing protection. You can get sound meters that measure sound levels if you want an idea of how loud sounds are, and there are several apps available that can also be helpful.
Don’t stand by the speakers If you’re going to a club or festival avoid standing or sitting by the speakers as the closer you are to the source of the sound, the louder it will be.
Use head phones safely An MP3 player at maximum volume produces a sound level of more than 100dB. So if you listen to music through headphones, make sure you set the level to one that won’t damage your hearing. That means not ramping up the volume to block out other external sounds. You ears adjust to the levels you listen to, so if you turn the sound down it might seem too quiet at first, but your ears will gradually adjust. If you aren’t sure how loud to listen, get a friend to stand by you when you have your headphones on. If they can hear what you can hear, then it’s too loud.
Take a break Your ears can cope better with loud sounds if you give them regular breaks.