DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I recently realized that I often ask people to repeat themselves and have to turn up the volume on the TV louder than before. How do I know if I have hearing loss? I am 46 years old. Am I too young for hearing loss? Can I take steps to prevent future hearing loss?
ANSWER: The ears are an important part of the body and damage to the delicate structures housed within them can lead to hearing loss and balance problems. Both can happen suddenly or over time. It is common for adults to experience hearing loss and balance problems as they age.
Although you may think you’re too young, hearing loss can occur at any age due to a number of factors. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the United States between the ages of 20 and 69 have some degree of hearing loss. This hearing loss is usually caused by exposure to loud sounds or noise.
Every day people are surrounded by noise. The bustle of traffic, the hum and creak of machinery, people talking, the music and chatter of the radio and planes flying overhead are all examples. Most people probably don’t think of these familiar sounds. They are usually not loud enough to interfere with daily routines or damage ears. But sometimes a noise is too loud and some sounds can cause permanent damage.
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Noises are measured according to their decibel levels. A decibel is a unit of measurement used to measure the sound level of something.
In general, noises below 70 decibels do not harm your ears. Damage can occur when noise exceeds this level. The higher the decibel level, the more your ears are damaged.
Patients often ask, “How much is that too strong?” Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you have to shout to be heard by someone within arm’s length, you’re making too much noise.
However, over time, all the loud sounds you are regularly exposed to can affect your hearing. Since hearing loss usually occurs gradually, people often don’t realize how much hearing they have lost over time. Although noise-induced hearing loss usually cannot be restored, the fact that you have noticed changes now allows you to prevent further loss.
Make an appointment first to have your hearing checked. Although you can start with your primary health care provider, you may be referred to an audiology center and different specialists depending on your situation. Audiologists are professionals with advanced degrees in all aspects of hearing and balance health care for patients of all ages. They often administer hearing tests. Hearing aid professionals are trained to identify hearing loss and distribute hearing aids to adults only. You may also meet with an otolaryngologist or otologist, doctors trained to manage medical or surgical problems associated with the ear.
Getting a hearing test is easy. Typically, your ears will be checked first to make sure they look healthy and that there is no earwax blocking the ear canal. Then you’ll wear headphones to listen to the tones at different pitches and volumes. The audiologist will determine when you hear the different tones at the softest levels. You will also be asked to repeat words at soft, comfortable volumes, and possibly with background noise as well. Next, a prescription or hearing plan will be developed which may include hearing aids.
Here are some tips to improve your hearing protection and prevent further loss:
Limit your exposure to loud noise. Take breaks after prolonged exposure to loud noise.
Wear hearing protection when involved in noisy activities. Look for devices that fit your ears well. All hearing protection devices are labeled with noise reduction ratings. The higher the number, the more noise reduction the device offers. Be sure to wear hearing protection any time you are exposed to loud sounds.
Consider using well-fitting earmuffs or wearing both earmuffs and earplugs for better noise reduction. This is useful especially when using noisy power tools or lawn equipment. Special earmuffs are also designed for use with firearms.
Children also need to be protected from noise. Specially designed earmuffs are available for infants and young children. Be sure to limit the volume of any personal listening devices your children may use.
Place pads under noisy appliances and do not operate multiple appliances at the same time.
Install carpet to absorb sound.
Seal windows and doors to block traffic noise.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to have a hearing test before age 60 and then every few years after that. As you have now noticed that you are suffering from hearing loss, you may be advised to test your hearing every year or when you notice a change. — Dr. Jamie Bogle, otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, Mayo Clinic
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