Making the Most of Summer Socials and Travel

By Beth Field, AuD

With summer in full swing, chances are you’re indulging in your favorite outdoor activities and perhaps have plans for vacation travel. From swimming to gardening to traveling, a little bit of extra preparation for these events can keep them fun and exciting. Remember, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” which is the case when it comes to managing your tinnitus and protecting your hearing health.

Water World

Thoughts of summer often conjure images of pools, beach vacations, or tubing on a lazy river. Indeed, warm weather and water sports go hand in hand.

Most of us show up for water sports with sunscreen and flotation devices. When we consider ear health, we should add some easy, inexpensive items to ward off potential illness or injury and know when it’s time to stay out of the water.

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  • Swim caps, swim plugs, or custom swim molds keep water from entering your ear canal, which wards off swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)—a bacterial infection caused by water pooling in the ear canal for an extended period.
    If water gets in your ears, tilt your head to the side to let it run out. If that doesn’t work, rub a towel gently around the outer ear to let it drain. If that fails, use a hairdryer on a low, cool setting at a safe distance from your ear to dry it.
    And though you’ve surely heard it before, never insert anything into your ear canal, including a cotton swab; so resist the temptation to do that.
  • Dynamic water sports like water skiing, high diving, and scuba diving pose a different challenge because the blunt impact of hitting the water at the wrong angle or, in the case of diving, failing to equalize eardrum pressure, can perforate the eardrum. If that happens, you’ll feel a sharp pain.
    Although a perforated eardrum will usually heal on its own within a few weeks, it’s worth a trip to your physician to make sure it’s okay.
    And while you might be tempted to go back in the water in a week or two, it’s best not to since the tear can allow water to pass through your ear canal into your middle ear, causing sudden-onset dizziness.
  • Limited research suggests a possible link between sun exposure and hearing loss. We often overlook our ears when applying sunscreen, so it makes sense to apply a thin layer of sunscreen on the outer area of your ears.
  • To prevent rupturing their eardrums, scuba and free divers must continually equalize the pressure that builds on their eardrums as they descend into the water. There are various ways to do this, with the most common method being holding both nostrils closed and gently blowing, which forces air through the eustachian tubes and equalizes the pressure on the eardrums.

Sometimes you may need to go up a few feet to re-equalize pressure, then continue a slow descent, repeating equalization of both eardrums until you reach the depth you wish to explore.

If you’re unable to equalize pressure on your eardrums, it’s critical to slowly surface and dive another day.

Festivities

For many of us, summer may include fireworks, festivals, outdoor concerts, or cookouts, all of which are typically loud, often dangerously loud. If you have tinnitus and/or hearing loss, then you know that hearing protection is critical, and simple preparation can ensure that you’ll have fun and good memories, not regrets. Another factor to consider is if you’re taking certain medications (antibiotics, pain meds, chemo meds), you may be more susceptible to the effects of noise, so hearing protection is important.

  • Foam earplugs are easy to use and inexpensive. Some brands offer up to 33 decibels of protection if properly inserted.
    To properly insert foam earplugs, roll the earplug into a tight cylinder between your fingers, pull your ear back with one hand to open your ear canal, and insert the foam plug with the other hand as deeply as it will comfortably go. Allow a few seconds for the foam to expand to provide the most protection.
    To see how this is done, watch this video: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/news/multimedia/hearing-protection-how-use-formable-earplugs-video.
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  • If foam earplugs are uncomfortable or difficult to insert, use earmuffs or consider custom-made earplugs, which an audiologist can make for you.
  • For people whose tinnitus is aggravated by salt or alcohol intake, bring low-salt dishes and nonalcoholic beverages to share with friends and family at picnics and cookouts.
  • When noise levels are safe, you shouldn’t wear earplugs. If you’re unsure about the noise level, download a decibel reader app to monitor it. One easy-to-use free app was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). To learn more, see https://www.cdc. gov/niosh/topics/noise/app.html. NIOSH also has guidelines for noise exposure levels that you may find helpful to better gauge safe sound. See https:// blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/ 2016/02/08/noise/.
  • Take noise breaks. It’s exciting to go to a concert or sporting event, but you should plan periodic sound breaks, especially if you find noise or crowds overwhelming.

If you have tinnitus, you may find exposure to noise makes you uneasy. So, besides hearing protection, a dosimeter app, and sound breaks, bring your stress management tools to summer events—breathing exercises, mindfulness, or whatever else you might find soothing. Prepare, so you’ll feel comfortable accepting invitations or planning summer events.

Travel

This summer, 85 percent of people in the United States are expected to take to the roads or skies to vacation. However you’re getting to your destination, consider these tips while packing.

  • Air travel can cause pain or pressure on the eardrum with changes in altitude. Like scuba diving, the best way to ease that pressure is to hold both nostrils closed and gently blow, which pushes air through the eustachian tubes, thereby equalizing the pressure. Once you get to cruising altitude, your ears should feel fine.
    If your ears are sensitive to altitude changes, or you have a cold or are congested, consider using pressure-reducing earplugs during takeoff and descent to relieve the pressure on the middle ear.
  • If you’re sensitive to ambient noise from the airplane or car, use noise-canceling headphones to listen to your favorite music, podcast, or to watch a movie.
  • Once you reach your destination, try to keep your usual sleep hygiene practices. This includes avoiding blue-light screens an hour or two before you go to bed, going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day, not eating too close to bedtime, and sleeping in a dark room (pack a sleep mask in case your accommodations don’t have blackout curtains).
  • If you use noise masking when you sleep, be sure to pack your tabletop speaker or purchase a travel version before you go.
  • If your trip includes outdoor excursions or water adventures, refer to the tips under “Water World.”

Yardwork

Gardening can be a great way to alleviate stress and get exercise, but yard tools can also be dangerously noisy, especially gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Refer to hearing safety tips under “Festivities,” and consider whether it’s time to transition to electric-powered yard tools, which cut down the noise and environmental pollutants.

With hearing protection, sunscreen, water to stay hydrated, and perhaps insect repellent, you should be able to enjoy your yard as it flourishes in warmer months.

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Summer Care for Hearing Aids

Summer season can be challenging for people who wear hearing aids because, like computers and cell phones, these sophisticated devices don’t fare well when exposed to water. But fear not, by adding a few easy steps to your regular hearing aid care routine, your hearing aids should remain in great working order.

  • In humid environments, consider adding a silica gel desiccant pack to your hearing aid storage case to absorb extra moisture. Small packets can be purchased online through Amazon or Walmart.
  • Bring an extra hearing aid case on vacation so you have one in your room and one for the pool or beach.
  • Some hearing aids are more water resistant than others, which is reflected in what’s called an “IP” rating, which indicates resistance to dust/sand and water on a scale of 1 to 8, with the higher numbers being better. For instance, IP68 means your hearing aids are highly resistant to dirt and sand (the first number) and have good resistance to temporary water exposure (the second number).
    Unless your hearing aids are specifically designed for water—a handful of such devices are on the market—do your best to remember to remove your hearing aids before entering water.
    If they do get wet, remove the battery immediately and put them in the case with a silica gel desiccant packet until you’re able to use a hairdryer on the coolest setting to completely dry them. This may help them return to their normal function after becoming waterlogged.
  • Last, if you sweat more than usual in warm or humid environments, consider giving your hearing aids a break, assuming it doesn’t impede your ability to communicate or stay safe, by placing them in their storage case with a silica gel packet or in a dehumidifying case to keep them in good working order.

Wherever you may go this summer, I hope these tips enable you to enjoy being outdoors, join social events with ease, and manage your tinnitus and hearing health so you’re left with good memories and excitement.


*To learn more about loud noise dangers, visit the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website at https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/news/2020/do-you-knowhow-loud-too-loud.



Headshot of Beth Field
Beth Field received her audiology degree from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She also has a master’s degree in linguistics from Ohio University. As a licensed audiologist, Dr. Field has worked for device manufacturers training audiologists how to use new hearing aid technology and tinnitus treatment devices, in addition to presenting at state and national audiology conventions. She is a member of the ATA’s Tinnitus Advisors Program.