Asked to choose between losing my hearing or my eyesight, I don’t skip a beat. Spending a lifetime without music to enliven my tedious interior monologue would be a living hell. Ever since the early '90s, when I fell under the pop spell cast by Tiffany and Sonia, music has been inseparable from my identity. Yet there’s just a few thin membranes standing between my hearing and eternal silence, and what do I do to protect it? Nothing. I’ve bought and abandoned cheap earplugs because they smother live music’s chest-pounding impact. I turn podcasts up loud when running to drown out men’s unsolicited remarks. I can pinpoint exactly when I started getting tinnitus — Mogwai playing at full volume in London’s tiny Hoxton Bar and Grill in 2011 — yet I put myself in identical situations every week.
I'm not alone in neglecting my hearing. In February 2017, the World Health Organization suggested that 1.1 billion 12 to 35-year-olds are at risk of hearing loss due to noise exposure in recreational settings — such as “use of personal audio devices at high volumes and for prolonged periods of time, and regular attendance at concerts, nightclubs, bars, and sporting events.” It’s easy advice to ignore — until it isn’t. Recently, my ears started to feel unreliable. I felt cotton-woolly in busy places, and I mumbled constantly for fear of shouting. I misheard people in intimate situations, yet was aggravated by the sound of two coins scraping together in a friend’s pocket.
I worried that it was my fault. I’ve been jamming cotton buds in my ears every day for years, despite warnings about the damage it can cause. The feeling is addictive. When everyone recoiled in horror at Girls’s Hannah Horvath wrecking her ears with Q-tips, I understood. I’ve read enviously about Japan’s mimikaki parlors, where technicians lovingly chisel wax from clients’ ears with a bamboo pick. In search of a DIY fix, I bought a plastic syringe and some wax-softening drops, but after I shared a picture and friendly Twitter audiologists recoiled in horror, I booked a microsuction appointment last month. Plot twist: there was no wax. The specialist said the issue is either in my inner ear — requiring a more serious examination — or psychological.
I’m hoping it’s the latter, and I’m giving his diagnosis time to sink in to see if my worries subside. For now, the experience has been sobering. I spoke with senior audiologist Jaspreet Bahra of Musicians Hearing Services (part of London clinic Harley Street Hearing) for advice on how to be a better ear custodian. Her straightforward tips were illuminating, and instantly applicable.
1. Resist Q-tipping your ears — no matter how good it feels
“When you use cotton buds, you’re taking away the skin’s moisture lining. The reason it feels good is because it causes your ear to become itchy, which makes you want to use cotton buds more. But if there is wax on the outer part of your ear canal, you’re going to push it further down, especially if you’ve got a narrow ear canal. If you go in too far you can cause damage.
“Wax is actually there to help protect your ear — it’s healthy. It collects all the dead skin cells from the ear canal, and it usually comes out of the ear canal by itself. You only need to remove it if it’s impairing the hearing. Some people — due to genetics, or very narrow ear canals — can have wax that’s quite hard and doesn’t come out by itself. That’s when we would recommend seeing a specialist.”
2. Don’t try to fix the problem yourself
“The safety restrictions that allow personal syringes to be sold [in the U.K.] means that the pressure — the thing that lets the water remove the wax from the ear — is going to be minimal [i.e. ineffective]. Plus, you can’t see what you’re doing, so it’s always safer to have a specialist remove it. With regard to hopi candles, firstly, you could burn yourself. And in terms of the theory behind it, the lit candle is meant to suck the wax out of the ear — again, you wouldn’t be able to create enough to pressure for the wax to come out. If you’ve got very wet, runny wax, then usually the preferred method would be irrigation. There are certain cases where you can’t have irrigation — for example, if you’ve had a perforation or hole in the eardrum, or ear surgery. Then we would prefer to use microsuction. And if the wax is harder and more impacted, then microsuction performed by a trained consultant, or a specialist nurse would be preferred.”
3. Beware of warning signs
“These include difficulty hearing background noise, and struggling when others around you can hear. There’s tinnitus, which is an umbrella word for anything people hear in their ears or head. Hyperacusis is sensitivity to loud sounds — people might find that traffic noises or everyday life might be too loud for them — and diplacusis, which is a pitch difference between the ears. Plus, there's general hearing loss. People tend to complain about a sensation of feeling like they’ve got cotton wool in their ears, so they come for wax removal when in fact they’ve just overexposed themselves to loud sounds.”
4. Loud music isn’t the only cause of tinnitus
“People perceive tinnitus for many different reasons, not just because of being in noisy environments — if you’re stressed or anxious; tiredness can exacerbate it, as can certain medications. It varies from very mild to more consistent. You can hear different sounds: ringing, buzzing, whistle sounds, hissing. It varies in intensity and pitch. So everyone’s perception of it is different. As to whether it’s a real sound or psychological, that’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s different for everyone. [But] if you have negative thoughts about tinnitus, then your perception [of it] is more likely to be of a constant nature than someone who doesn’t draw attention to it.”
5. Ears can recover from being in noisy environments — for a while
“When you expose yourself to loud sounds, what’s called a temporary threshold shift occurs. After you leave a noisy environment, your hearing will feel muffled, and it does take about 24 to 48 hours for that perception to go and for hearing to go back to normal. But if you keep putting yourself in those environments, then it will eventually cause permanent hearing loss.”
6. The colors on your phone volume controls are there for a reason
“On some phones, you have a little volume scale: in the white is fine, you should monitor the orange, and then red is too loud. If you have it on full volume and you’re not feeling that it’s loud enough, or too loud for you, then check your headphones. [With regular headphones] if you’re walking down the street, for example, you will generally want to put the volume higher. And then when you go into a quieter environment, you probably notice that it’s quite loud. Usually noise-cancelling headphones tend to be better [for regulating volume].”
7. Good ear plugs are expensive, but worth it
“There are two different types of earplugs available. You can get generic off-the-shelf ones that reduce the volume but keep the clarity. But the problem with generic ones is that the fit depends upon your ear canal size. Custom-made products can reduce the volume via a special filter in the plug, but keep the clarity so that you can maintain a conversation.”
8. Take breaks during shows and club nights
“Hearing damage depends upon not only on volume, but also on the duration you’re exposing yourself to that sound. Live music is around 100db, which, according to guidelines, you can be exposed to for about 15 minutes before it starts causing some damage. But it also depends upon your genetics. Stand as far away from the speakers as possible, and give yourself breaks if you haven’t got any hearing protection.”
9. Hearing ultimately declines with age — even in your twenties
“Usually we would expect frequencies of 8khz to start tailing off round about age 60-ish. We’d expect teenagers to be able to hear higher frequencies than that, but people in their twenties and thirties might not be able to hear those frequencies as well.”