When I drop my kids off at school, walk through an airport, or look around my office waiting room, I see people of all ages wearing different types of headphones and listening to their phones or tablets. . As the surrounding environment becomes increasingly noisy, the volume of the device increases slowly to maintain sound clarity. Currently, the CDC has shown that one in 10 children between the ages of 6 and 19 suffer from some level of noise-induced hearing loss. This is why it is important to understand how exposure to loud noise affects the inner ear, auditory signs of hearing loss and how to prevent this in all age groups.
Noise-induced hearing loss in our younger generation is more common today than it was 10, five or even two years ago. As younger generations plug in for longer periods of time, we are seeing a detrimental effect on their hearing. It is important that we recognize all the signs of hearing loss so that it can be quickly diagnosed, the volume turned down, and hopefully hearing returned to normal.
How does loud noise affect the inner ear?
The sound pressure wave from the earphones causes increased vibration of the cochlear hair cells in the inner ear, which can cause injury. Think of it as a wave breaking on a beach. The bigger and stronger the wave, the more forcefully it hits the sand, which increases erosion. The same is true for an acoustic pressure wave. The stronger the wave, the more it hurts the inner hair cells, especially the high frequency ones. With repeated exposure, the risk of irreversible damage is high.
What are the signs that a person with noise-induced hearing loss may experience?
At first, a person may complain of ringing in the ears (tinnitus), muffled hearing (due to a shift in the hearing threshold), and difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise. Some patients may initially express an increased sensitivity to sound. They may say that everything is too loud (hyperacusis) or painful when exposed to loud sounds. Recognizing the early signs of loud noise exposure can be beneficial in preventing permanent effects. If signs of hearing loss persist, it is important to have a hearing test performed by a licensed audiologist. The audiologist will be able to do comprehensive tests to identify any signs of hearing loss, especially in the high frequencies. If hearing loss is identified, advice on reducing noise exposure will be given and most likely with a repeat hearing test at a later date to assess any improvement.
How to prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
Start by lowering the sounds. Wearable hearing aids, when set to their maximum volume, can produce sounds at 85 decibels (dB) or more. Some music can reach levels of up to 110 dB. Even less than two minutes with exposure at this level can permanently damage hearing. This is equivalent to the sound of an engine (85 dB) or an ambulance siren (120 dB). It is recommended that the sound remain at 50% volume, or around 70-75 dB, thus almost eliminating the risk of noise damage. The volume should not be so high that others can hear it or the listener cannot hear the sounds around them. Most personal devices have the ability to monitor the sound levels a person is exposed to and can alert you if a maximum amount of sound has been reached for a day or week. Parents can also set limits on their child’s portable device, in most cases that limit the volume at which they will play. However, most children are tech-savvy enough to get past this, so it’s important not to rely on this protection alone. It’s important to talk to your children about this, especially middle and high school students, so they can take an active role in preventing hearing loss.
Information provided by Tina Elkins, MD, board-certified ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist at UT Health East Texas Physicians in Athens, who sees patients of all ages. As an otolaryngologist, Dr. Elkins specializes in treating conditions affecting the ears, nose, and throat, either medically or surgically. Call 903-676-3316 to schedule an appointment.