I always knew that hearing loss was a possibility for me. My father and his siblings all had otosclerosis. With a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease, I hoped that I wasn’t going to get it. Then I did. It was a major adjustment, both personally and professionally.
Here’s my layperson explanation of otosclerosis. As a result of abnormal bone growth, the stapes bone in my middle ear stopped moving, limiting how sounds pass through them (here is a more technical explanation of otosclerosis). It's significantly different from the more common hearing loss that results from nerve damage (called sensorineural hearing loss). Sensorineural hearing loss generally makes all soft sounds harder to hear. My otosclerosis resulted in much more significant hearing loss in the lower ranges (think men’s voices and most vowel sounds). Eventually, it will affect the higher octaves, too.
I have had the stapes bone removed and replaced with a titanium prosthetic (called a stapedectomy) in both of my ears. Almost exactly 50 years before me, my father had the same surgery (though not with titanium). His surgery failed after about a year. My surgery is failing, too, though more gradually. Hence, the need for hearing aids.
My Experience Traveling With Hearing Loss
In the U.S., hearing aids are usually not covered by health insurance. They can cost up to $7,000 for a pair. They are also fragile -- water, sand, humidity, and condensation will ruin them. They can fall out during strenuous activities. As I was in my late 40s and liked to travel off-the-beaten-track, I immediately had to figure out how to travel with this new reality.
Since my operations, I’ve been to dozens of countries and continents, including Antarctica (which included kayaking in the ocean), Borneo, Norway, Easter Island, Chile, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and dozens of other places. The only time that I have ever damaged or lost a hearing aid was at work in New Jersey.
No matter what kind of hearing loss you are experiencing, you need a plan for traveling with hearing aids.
I’ve tried different things and spoken to many people about travel and hearing loss. Here are 16 tips that I’ve learned over the past decade for safely and comfortably traveling with hearing aids. This post has ideas and advice but you’ll need to consult with your audiologist or otolaryngologist as you make travel decisions.
1. Decide If You Can Leave Them Home
When I went to Norway in winter to see the northern lights and stay in an ice hotel, I decided not to bring my hearing aids. I was concerned that they would be damaged by the condensation and could be lost when we were doing outdoor activities. If I had a dehumidifier (more on this later), I might have made a different decision about bringing my hearing aids. This is not a viable strategy for people with profound hearing loss.
2. Rely, But Don’t Over-Rely, On Your Traveling Partners
I can get by without my hearing aids, but there are certain things I sacrifice when I make that decision. Without my hearing aids, I have to compensate for my hearing loss. I travel with my spouse, so some of my compensation strategies fall on her. This can be pretty annoying to a travel partner. I carefully choose my seat in restaurants and am always at the front on group tours and in conversations. But I can’t avoid asking her dozens of times a day, “What did they say?” Needless to say, she gets very tired of repeating everything to me.
3. Pack Your Hearing Aids Safely
When bringing hearing aids on a trip, the best way to keep them safe is to wear them. On a 21-hour flight to Singapore, however, I am definitely not going to wear them the whole time. I carefully pack them away in my hand luggage or somewhere that I know I won’t leave on the plane. I never put them in a seat pocket. And, I tell my spouse, Reggie, where I put them so I don’t go crazy when I forget where I put them.
4. Bring Enough Batteries (Or A Charging Station)
As part of my packing list, I make sure to either bring a charging station (and all of the necessary cords and adapters) or enough batteries for the trip. You cannot count on finding the right batteries in a foreign country. Or, even being able to explain what you are looking for.
5. Prepare Extra Supplies
While you are at it, make sure to bring extra supplies -- cleaning cloths, wax guards, earbuds, and anything else that you might need. Pack all of these items in your carry-on. It’s much safer than putting them in a checked bag that could get lost or stolen.
6. Don’t Count On Travel Insurance To Cover Your Hearing Aids
Travel insurance often either does not cover the loss of hearing aids or only provides limited coverage. Make sure to read the fine print so you know exactly what is covered. Before you leave home, consider buying insurance for your hearing aids.
7. Consider Purchasing A Dehumidifier
Dehumidifiers for hearing aids can be a lifesaver on a trip. They are fairly inexpensive and many have a cleaning function as well. Condensation can ruin hearing aids, so having a way to dry the inside of the aids as needed is very important.
8. Let Your Tour Operators And Guides Know
Many people try to hide their hearing loss. One of the selling points of many hearing aids is that they are almost invisible. I do not think hiding my hearing loss is a helpful strategy.
If you are going on a group tour, tell your tour operator and tour guides about your hearing loss. Let them know that visual clues and line of sight are important to your comprehension. If they speak with an accent or talk fast like New Yorkers, ask them to speak slower. In addition, tell people in the tour group about it. They will be supportive and understand why you are standing in front all of the time.
9. Stay Away From Water, Sand, And Snow
Water, sand, and snow can be deadly for hearing aids. I don’t wear them for activities in these conditions. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it is worth the risk.
10. Extreme Sports And Hearing Aids Don’t Mix
Likewise for extreme sports. There is a very high chance of a hearing aid falling out while bungee jumping, windsurfing, mountain biking, and participating in other high-impact activities. Due to the prosthetics in my ears, I am not supposed to do any of these activities. If I were allowed, I would certainly not wear my hearing aids.
At the same time, not wearing hearing aids can be risky. When I bike in NYC and am not wearing them, I cannot hear the traffic or people behind me. I have to be extra careful where and how I bike.
11. Keep Your Ears And Hearing Aids Clean
If you are swimming or doing other wet activities, make sure that your ears are completely dry before putting your hearing aids back in. Otherwise, you run the risk of trapping dirty water in your ear which can lead to an ear infection.
Also, make time to clean and do routine maintenance on your hearing aids during your trip. You don’t want to have them stop working because of wax build-up. Depending on where you are traveling, it can be very difficult to find someone to repair your aids. While you are at it, think about stopping by your audiologist or provider to get them professionally cleaned right before a major trip.
12. Stay Awake On The Plane During Ascent And Descent
In addition to otosclerosis, I also have tinnitus and Eustachian tube issues. The second condition causes great problems when I fly. If I am not careful, my ear will not pop for days, which creates the risk of a ruptured eardrum. I already have a surgically repaired eardrum and don’t want to go through that again.
I consulted with my otolaryngologist about how to handle flying. My pre-flight routine now includes taking a decongestant or a strong nasal spray one hour before my flight, packing gum and lozenges, and staying awake during all ascents and descents. It is especially important to be awake during the descent. Consult with your doctor about how to handle flying if you are having similar problems.
13. Consider These Tips If You Have Tinnitus
Many people with hearing loss have tinnitus (the perception of noise or ringing in the ears). The engines are usually quieter in the front of the plane and sitting closer to the front can help with tinnitus. Many hearing aids also have settings to counter tinnitus.
14. Pair Your Hearing Aids With The Rental Car GPS
If you rent a car, it is a good idea to pair your hearing aids with the car’s GPS (or your phone if that’s how you get directions). Once you do that, you can have the volume as loud as you need without giving your traveling companions a headache.
I also cannot tell the directionality of sound. As a result, I never know what direction sirens are coming from. I ask my passengers to help when that happens. It’s best to tell people beforehand if you have that challenge.
15. Use Assisted Listening Devices At Performances
Many performing arts centers have assistive listening devices for patrons. These devices amplify the sounds of the performers. It can make the performance much more enjoyable if you do not need to strain to understand what is being said. Check ahead of time to find out if this is available and if there are any other accommodations available.
16. Enjoy Your Traveling No Matter What
There is so much to see and experience that goes beyond spoken words. While you are there, try not to worry about hearing every word. Accept that you won’t. You can do your own research before or after an experience. Relax. See, feel, touch, and be in the moment. And, be safe. In some instances, not hearing can be dangerous. Ask for help or assistance when you need it. Enjoy your travels.