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Ask the Expert: Ringing in the ears doesn't have to be tolerated

Audiologist talks about risks and treatment of tinnitus

By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter

November 14, 2012

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Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, affects an estimated 1 in 20 Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association. While it is often described as ringing, it can also be buzzing, hissing, whirring or whistling. While it may seem like a mere annoyance, for sufferers it can destroy day-to-day life.

The assault on our hearing, especially during the fall when leaf blowers are roaring at deafening decibels, can contribute to this condition. We turned to Lata Jain, who has been practicing audiology for more than 12 years and specializes in tinnitus. She owns and manages five locations of Sonus Hearing Care Professionals in the Chicago area. Jain received her master's in audiology from Ohio University and is a fellow of the American Academy of Audiology. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: What causes tinnitus?

A: The No. 1 cause is the prolonged exposure to loud sounds. Normal conversation registers at 60 decibels. Over 85 is when it gets harmful. … The noise causes damage to the cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear. Hearing also worsens with age … and that can also cause tinnitus. Depending on the cause, it can be short term or more permanent and cause hearing loss.

Q: Who is at risk?

A: Anyone who is continually around loud noises … landscapers, carpenters, construction workers. But exposure to loud noises is cumulative, so it can occur in anyone, including young people. The average decibel level at a rock show is 110, loud enough to cause permanent damage in one evening.

Q: So the proliferation of iPods is a problem?

A: Yes. One in three teens have MP3 players, and there's very little awareness. Loud levels of noise should be avoided, regardless. … But the risks are even greater when the source is directly in your ears. The first step is getting the word out, which I see as one of my roles. I'm positive that this will change … and that some association will take some steps and try to get some legislation in place on the use of these devices.

Q: How is tinnitus treated?

A: With proper sound therapy, which can use sound to decrease the loudness or prominence of tinnitus, this condition can be brought under control. Often, sound is used to completely or partially cover the tinnitus. A lot of people are told that they just have to live with it, but that's not true. There is relief out there.

Q: When should someone seek treatment?

A: When it gets in the way of normal functioning. It can affect work, social life, sleep; it can cause depression. It is important for an intervention, because anxiety and stress can make symptoms worse … you perceive the sound to be louder than it really is.

Q: What about earwax? Can that affect hearing?

A: Earwax protects the ear canal against dirt and bacteria. It's OK and very normal. You don't really need to do anything other than external cleaning of your ear … most of the time, people just end up pushing it deeper into their ear. Only a small percentage of people are affected to the point that wax gets impacted and affects their hearing. That's when you need to see a professional and get it cleaned.

Q. What do you know about ear candling? The theory is that the heat from flame will create suction that draws earwax into a hollow candle. It seems to be making a comeback.

A. I know that you shouldn't do it.

brubin@tribune.com