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Noise-induced hearing loss and recreational activities

We seldom associate hearing loss with fun, but many popular recreational activities put people at risk for noise-induced hearing loss if they aren't properly protected. If you are a motorcyclist or hunter, here's what you need to know to keep yourself safe during these activities:

Motorcycling

Everyone knows motorcycles are loud. When you hear them pass in large groups, it's not uncommon to flinch or need to cover your ears. But if you're actually on the motorcycle, the sounds are inescapable. The risk of NIHL for motorcyclists comes from two sources: the motorcycle engine and the wind rushing past your ears.

Engine noise

Motorcycles are a part of noise pollution. In a 2004 study at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, researchers revved the engines of 33 motorcycles and found that about half produced noises above 100 decibels, which is on par with a buzzing chain saw or a live rock concert. According to the  Occupational Safety and Health Association, this level of sound is safe for our ears for no more than 15 minutes. The loudest bike registered at 119 decibels, which is safe for the ears for only about 11 seconds, according to Joy Colle, an audiologist and one of the lead researchers. So if motorcyclists are riding in groups, one can only imagine how the engine noise is magnified to extremely dangerous levels.

Colle cautioned that engine exposure could be a serious public health issue:

"Potentially, the vast majority of motorcyclists could be exposed to dangerous levels of noise," Colle said, noting that this action-level noise would require hearing protection if it occurred in the workplace in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

In fact, permanent NIHL can occur in individuals who are exposed to any noises above 85 decibels for prolonged periods of time.

Wind noise

It might be surprising to many people, but the noise from wind rushing past your ears is also damaging to your hearing. If you're traveling at 40 miles per hour, the wind noise is within safe volumes. But traveling at about 75 miles per hour can generate 105 decibels worth of noise! If you're planning to take a long motorcycle trip, this can be a challenge as OSHA standards and research recommend that exposure to this level of noise is safe for only one hour. One of the interesting problems is that helmets exacerbate the noise levels by design. Still, helmets are a must for safety, so motorcyclists should purchase custom-designed earplugs to protect against wind and engine noise. And, they should seriously re-consider traveling in large groups and frequently revving their engines to avoid damaging hair cells that results in NIHL.

Hunting and sport shooting

Many people enjoy going to the shooting range or hunt to provide meals for their families. While shooting firearms in a safe setting can be a great release for many people, exposure to firearm noise is also a major risk factor for hearing loss according to ASHA. For example, a small 0.22-caliber rifle can produce noises around 140 decibels, and pistols can make noises as loud as 175 decibels! For people who shoot guns without hearing protection, they often suffer high-frequency permanent NIHL, meaning they can't differentiate between certain speech sounds and have difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds. Often, one ear is more affected than the other, depending on if the shooter is right- or left-handed. Permanent tinnitus in one or more ear is also a major problem. People who hunt or shoot for sport can use high-quality padded headphones or customized earplugs to protect themselves from NIHL.

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