Protect Your Hearing Health During Flu Season

Protect Your Hearing Health During Flu Season

The colder months inevitably carry with them an increased risk of contracting the flu, a common ailment that can have an unexpected impact on your hearing health.

At one time or another, we all come down with the flu. The congestion, the mental fog, the nagging cough — you can vividly imagine each of these symptoms because you’ve undoubtedly experienced them yourself. Yet despite our collective familiarity with the typical effects of the flu virus, most people aren’t aware that this annoying annual visitor can also cause abrupt, significant hearing loss.

It’s not uncommon to experience mild hearing loss when suffering from the flu. As congestion builds, the eustachian tubes — small vents in the back of the throat that help regulate air pressure in the middle ear — can become blocked, which will reduce a person’s ability to hear. This is the best-case scenario for flu-related hearing loss, as hearing usually returns to normal shortly after the underlying congestion dissipates. As with most flu symptoms, people suffering from this form of hearing loss are usually back to their old selves within a few days.

In less ideal circumstances, however, the flu virus may affect the nerves that facilitate hearing. As extremely precise organs, these nerves are also very fragile, and seemingly minor damage caused by the flu virus can have a notable, permanent effect on the volume, pitch, and tone of the sounds a person hears. Because those damaged hearing organs also help a person to maintain their balance, extensive viral nerve damage can also cause ongoing feelings of dizziness and equilibrium issues, eventually reducing a person’s overall mobility.

Happily, hearing loss from the flu is rare. Doctors have a number of treatment options to maintain a person’s hearing in the face of a virus rampaging through their sinuses. Even in cases of extensive damage and permanent hearing loss, there is a wide range of behavioral therapies, surgical options, and technologies that can restore some level of hearing, allowing the patient to live a full life.

Hearing Aids: The Past, the Present, and the Future

Hearing Aids: The Past, the Present, and the Future

Hearing aids have come a long way since the all-too-obvious contraptions your grandparents grudgingly wore.

17th Century

The first hearing aid, which debuted in the 17th century, is a far cry from our modern, nearly invisible, high-tech devices. Dubbed “ear trumpets,” these hearing aids were exactly what the name suggests: Funnels shaped like musical instruments which, when held to the ear, helped collect, amplify, and guide sound waves into the ear canal. Ear trumpets were commonly made of sheet metal, but historians have found examples constructed from wood, silver, and even more exotic materials, such as snail shells and animal horns.

19th Century

It wasn’t until the telephone and microphone were invented in the late 19th century that electronic hearing aids became a real possibility. An electrical engineer named Miller Reese Hutchison, who would become famous for inventing a number of portable electronic devices, introduced the first electrical hearing aid in 1898. Known as the Akouphone, the device used a carbon transmitter and electrical current to amplify weak audio signals. Historical reports claim the Akouphone did successfully treat mild to moderate hearing loss, but it required that wearers be tethered to a bulky, tabletop machine, limiting the device’s practical applications.

20th Century

The 20th century saw a boom in hearing aid technology. The Vactuphone, a device introduced in 1920, used vacuum tubes and a telephone transmitter to translate speech into an electrical signal. The Vactuphone weighed a mere seven pounds — massive compared to modern hearing aids, but amazingly tiny when viewed alongside the Akouphone.

Miniaturization came to the forefront of hearing aid design during WWII, and Bell Labs’ introduction of the first transistors in 1948 led to tremendous advancements in the level of technology manufacturers could cram into a tiny, portable device. Transistor-based hearing aids also required far less energy than vacuum tube designs, paving the way for the creation of smaller, longer-lasting, less expensive batteries. The 1970s saw the debut of microprocessors, which allowed hearing aids to shrink even further, while dramatically improving audio clarity.

Modern Hearing Aids

The first all-digital, consumer hearing aid — what you’d recognize as a modern hearing aid — was introduced in 1996, and while the basic technology hasn’t changed much since then, the features found in contemporary hearing devices would not have been possible even as recently as five years ago. The latest hearing aids offer unparalleled audio quality, are effectively invisible during use, and can even wirelessly sync with a user’s smartphone to transmit telephone calls and music directly into the ear canal.

If there’s anything more impressive than how far hearing aids have come, it’s the promise of what hearing aid manufacturers have planned for the future. Recently, the United States Food & Drug Administration approved the use of hearing aids that replace traditional digital and analog sound-transmission technology with a smaller, more efficient system that transmits sound vibrations to the ear using precise beams of laser light. More hypothetical designs propose hearing aids that are powered entirely by sunlight in a process that mimics plant leaves, and biotechnological implants that can be updated through the skin, which draw energy from the movements of nearby facial muscles.