Do You Hear What I Hear?

Jingle bells and carol concerts are sounds that help make the holiday season special. But, they may also give people an opportunity to recognize if they are having trouble hearing.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 36 million American adults report some type of hearing loss. Of these, an estimated 26 million have high-frequency hearing loss caused by too much exposure to loud sound.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is usually painless, progressive, permanent, and completely preventable. NIHL happens when a person is exposed for too long to sound pressure levels of 85 decibels or more. And we’re not just talking about exposure to endless rock concerts or pneumatics drills.  85 decibels is roughly the sound of heavy city traffic.  Prolonged exposure can result in damage to the sensory hair cells of the inner ear. The process is so gradual that people often do not realize they have a hearing loss until it affects the ability to carry on conversations in daily life.

With NIHL, softer high frequency sounds are difficult to hear, which means a person can hear what is said but they cannot understand what is said.

So how can people recognize if they have noise induced hearing loss?

When a person frequently has trouble understanding conversations at holiday parties, family gatherings, and in noisy restaurants it might be a good time for a hearing test and ear examination,” says John House, MD, president of House Research Institute.

The holidays give family and friends the opportunity to notice a change in a loved one’s hearing as well. People with hearing loss may have trouble participating in conversations because they miss key words.

“We hear from our patients that they first noticed a change in their hearing several years before they finally come in to the Clinic to have their hearing checked,” said Dr. House. “Often it is a spouse or family member who urges a patient to get their hearing tested.”

There are some forms of hearing loss, which are not noise-induced, that can be treated with surgery. The sooner a hearing loss is identified, the sooner the patient can learn about the treatment options that may help.

So if you know someone who is having trouble hearing, maybe you can consider giving the gift of hearing this holiday season by encouraging them to schedule a hearing test.

The voice of asthma

If you have been diagnosed as having asthma, but are not responding to medications, the wheezing could be due to something entirely different.  Many people who have been treated, often unsuccessfully, for asthma have been found to have vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) instead.

So what is VCD?

Normally when an individual breathes in or out the vocal cords are drawn apart by the muscles of the larynx to make a wider opening for air to move into or out of the lungs. In an individual with VCD, the vocal cords move together, instead of being drawn apart, resulting in a narrowing and partial blockage of the airway. As a result of the narrowed airways, the individual may coughwheeze, feel short of breath, or make a high-pitched, harsh sound (stridor) with each breath.

Signs of VCD include:

  • Difficulty when breathing in
  • Wheezing occurring almost immediately after exercise
  • Wheezing that does not respond to bronchodilators

If this strikes a chord, you may need to be evaluated by an ear, nose and throat specialist, (ENT) who can diagnose VCD with a number of simple tests.

Most patients with VCD do not need medicines, but can be helped by speech therapy techniques such as vocal cord relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. For some cases of acute VCS, helium-oxygen therapy may be prescribed. The helium-oxygen mixture (heliox) is less dense and more oxygen-rich than regular air, so it is easier to inhale.

Word on Health suggests if your asthma is not being relieved by asthma medications you may need to be more vocal in seeking treatment.

Remember, even if it sounds like asthma and feels like asthma, it might not be asthma!