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Hearing Loss Prevention

Contributed by , associate editor for Healthy Hearing

Hearing loss is a common issue facing teenagers and adults today. However, recent studies show one-third of all cases of permanent hearing loss are actually preventable. Depending on the type and cause of the hearing loss, using the following prevention methods may help individuals protect their ability to hear.

Avoid damaging noises

Research conducted by the Harvard Medical School in Boston shows an average of 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels on a daily basis. While sensitivity to loud sound varies from person to person, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that prolonged exposure to noise levels over 80 decibels -- the sound of a garbage disposal -- can cause permanent harm to hearing. And the higher the noise level means the greater the risk of hearing loss.

Prolonged exposure isn’t the only way loud sounds can damage hearing. Exceptionally loud noises, even for a short duration, like firing a gun or an explosion, can cause irreversible hearing loss.

noise-induced hearing loss, causes of hearing loss, gunfire sound
Proper ear protection is crucial in noisy
environments!

The problem with hearing loss caused by loud noises is often individuals don’t realize when a situation is too noisy or could be damaging to hearing. There are numerous indications of an environment which might be harmful to hearing, including: raising your voice to be heard, being unable to hear someone three feet away from you, speech around you sounding muffled or dull after leaving a noisy area or experiencing pain or ringing in yours ears (tinnitus) after exposure to sound.

What many people don’t realize is how loud everyday sounds are around us. While typical conversation, the dishwasher and clothes dryer all maintain a moderate noise level, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association reports that busy traffic, an alarm clock, the vacuum cleaner, blow-dryer and blender all operate at very loud levels, anywhere from 80-90 decibels. Additionally, a passing motorcycle, hand drill, gas lawn mower or MP3 player can produce sound levels nearing 110 decibels. And at the painful end of the spectrum, a siren, jet plane taking off and firearms within close range can put out up to 150 decibels of noise, nearly twice the recommended allowance.

Permanent hearing loss can develop from loud noise because of damage to the delicate pathways of the ear canal. A noise is collected by the ear through sound waves, which travel down the canal and toward the eardrum. When a sound is at a loud or dangerous level, the force of it can damage or dislodge the tiny bones of the middle ear.

In addition to disrupting the middle ear, loud sound can damage the tiny hair cells lining the inner ear. Because healthy hair cells are required to send electrical impulses to the brain, damage to them can result in permanent hearing loss.

Utilize hearing protection

The anatomy of noise-canceling headphones.

Unfortunately, we live in a noisy world and sometimes, exposure to potentially damaging sound levels is unavoidable. There are several professions which put individuals at risk for hearing loss on a daily basis, such as: construction workers, paramedics and firefighters, musicians, military personnel, and manufacturing and factory jobs. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational hearing loss is the most commonly recorded occupational illness in manufacturing – 17,700 cases out of 59,100 cases –  accounting for one in nine recordable illnesses.

The good news is there are numerous precautions individuals who work in a noisy environment can take. There are several types of hearing protection gear available, from low-cost, low-tech foam or wax to high-tech, high-end noise cancellation devices. The best one differs based on an individual’s protection needs.

Earplugs are one type of hearing protection available. They are generally made of acoustically imperforate materials and are a specific size so they can provide appropriate protection when worn properly. There are many varieties of earplugs available, from disposable to reusable, to soft-fit or even banded options. Individuals who wear earplugs frequently sometimes opt for customized earplugs, which can be made to fit. It is imperative that earplugs are inserted correctly to protect against loud noises.

Earmuffs or noise-cancellation earphones are others options for hearing protection. These selections often offer more protection against prolonged or higher levels of noise. These devices work by fitting and covering the entire ear, which stops loud noise from traveling through the ear canals.

Hearing protection devices will only work if the individuals wears them and properly! If unsure of which type of protection to utilize, an appointment should be scheduled with a hearing healthcare professional to best access personal needs.

Get a hearing test 

Individuals should be proactive in their hearing health. People don’t hesitate having their eyes or teeth checked, in addition to general health physicals, so it is important to add hearing to the list of check-ups.

Healthy Hearing Tip
Avoiding prolonged exposure to loud or noisy environments, short bursts of excessively loud sound and wearing proper hearing protection are both important steps to preventing damage to hearing.

If an individual is experiencing any of these symptoms, a hearing healthcare professional can perform a hearing test to evaluate what kind of loss is present. Some hearing loss is caused by illness or earwax, something which can be treated by the practitioner or with medicine.

If a hearing loss is already indicated, having it evaluated by a hearing healthcare professional could help prevent the loss from getting worse.


Once an individual’s hearing has been evaluated, it is possible they might need hearing aids. In the event hearing aids are recommended, they won’t restore hearing, but will help the individual hear and communicate better.

The key to hearing loss prevention starts with the individual. Avoiding prolonged exposure to loud or noisy environments, short bursts of excessively loud sound, wearing proper hearing protection devices and having your hearing checked if a loss is indicated are all important steps to preventing damage to hearing.

References

  1. Noise, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/noise/
  2. Hearing Loss Prevention, Better Hearing Institute, http://www.betterhearing.org/hearing_loss_prevention/
  3. Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/

This content was last reviewed on: May 21st, 2014

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