Hearing loss affects more than just your grandparents

Story and gallery by WILLOW GALVAN

“No one thinks that hearing loss will happen to them, until it does,” said University of Utah student Dallin Wilkins, 20, while sitting at a local coffee shop.

Wilkins was just 13 when he started shooting guns frequently with his dad, and without using ear protection. Unfortunately that decision, and his habit of playing loud music through his headphones, catalyzed his hearing loss at a young age.

It didn’t take long for Wilkins’ hearing to quickly start to deteriorate. By the time he was 18, he depended heavily on reading the lips of those he spoke with. He also experienced an almost constant ringing in his ears. At that point, he realized it was time to see an audiologist for answers.

At first, the audiologists were surprised at the amount of hearing Wilkins had lost at such a young age. However, after learning more about his habits that led to the damage, they were surprised it wasn’t worse. It was then that Wilkins underwent the process of receiving hearing aids, which he has now worn daily for over two years.

Liz Hankins, director of audiology at House of Hearing, which has multiple locations across the Salt Lake Valley, said that noise exposure is one of the most common reasons for people to experience hearing loss. This could happen as a result of various activities including shooting guns, going to concerts, or working in loud environments.

Younger people generally assume that older individuals are the only people to experience hearing loss to this degree. “People need to just be mindful of the fact that hearing loss doesn’t just happen to old people, it can happen to younger kids. And the problem is that once those hair cells and the hearing has been affected you just can’t get it back,” Hankins said.

In fact, she said it is actually very common, with 50 million Americans experiencing hearing loss and 1 in 5 teens struggling with it as well.

Hankins also recommends those struggling with hearing loss see an ear, nose, and throat physician or an audiologist immediately. If any parents are concerned with their children’s speech or language development, Hankins said these issues are likely caused by hearing loss, and it should be ruled out immediately.

Hearing loss is so common that many companies are developing services with the intent to educate individuals on the issue at hand, including powerhouse company, Apple.

In the Apple iOS 13 update that came out in September 2019, the Health app offers a new hearing section. Here, Apple users can read about what causes hearing loss and the different levels of hearing loss. It also includes indications of when you might be experiencing it.

Some of the indications of hearing loss that are listed are: when you meet someone and it is hard to hear their name, in loud places when you miss part of conversations, and when you have ringing in your ears.

The app also has a section that provides information about why hearing health matters. It shows how hearing is measured in decibels, and how you are generally in a loud environment when decibels are over 80.

Aside from the Health app being updated with this new information, Apple Watches also have new technology to protect hearing health. If you have one of these devices, you can set up the Hearing app available on them. After it is set up, the app will monitor the level of noise exposure you are in, and alert you when it reaches a potentially dangerous level.

Josh Hankins, a hearing care specialist who also works at the House of Hearing, said the best way to preserve your hearing is by letting discomfort be your guide. By this, he recommends that when you are in an environment that feels uncomfortably loud, you change the situation by leaving or getting ear protection.

There is also a misconception when it comes to how to care for your ears. “Take care of your ears by leaving them alone,” he said. He reassures people that a little earwax is normal, and if it becomes excessive, you should seek care from a specialist. The general population uses cotton swabs to clean their ears, which is very damaging. In fact, the boxes themselves advise users not to use them in their ear canal at all.

The reason that cotton swabs are so damaging is because they actually do not clean your ears. They just push the ear wax further down your ear canal, which can lead to difficulty hearing and an uncomfortable sensation. An even more detrimental consequence of using these in your ears is the possibility of bursting your eardrum, which can cause permanent damage, according to WebMD.

While drinking his coffee, Wilkins said he wishes there were resources such as the Health app available to him when he was younger. He hopes that others use this information to protect their ears and take it more seriously than he did.

Wilkins knows firsthand how heartbreaking it was to lose his hearing, especially when it could have been prevented. He warns others to protect their ears because once they are damaged it is irreversible. “When you have hearing loss, you aren’t just missing some words in some conversations,” he said. “You are missing time with your loved ones, you are missing out on memories, you are missing out on everything.”