Hearing loss is a common health concern for many people, and it can result from a number of different causes. The good news is that some types of hearing loss are preventable. With just a few small changes in habit and increased awareness, the effort to prevent hearing loss can have a big payoff in the future.
Avoid damaging noises
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an estimated 22 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work on a daily basis. While sensitivity to loud sound varies from person to person, prolonged exposure to noise levels over 80 decibels (dB) -- 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 of short duration, like firing a gun or an explosion, can cause irreversible hearing loss.
The problem with hearing loss caused by loud noises is that you often don’t realize when a situation is noisy enough to cause damage. Watching for the signs and being prepared is important. If a situation feels too loud, it probably is. Beyond that, watch for these signs:
- You need to raise your voice to be heard
- You are unable to hear someone three feet away from you
- Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after leaving a noisy place
- You experience pain or ringing in your ears (tinnitus) after being in a noisy place
- Use a handy smartphone app to objectively measure sound levels on the go!
Aside from the occasional noisy restaurant, loud concert or fireworks display, other routine, everyday sounds can be problematic, too. While typical conversation, the dishwasher and clothes dryer all maintain a moderate noise level, busy traffic, an alarm clock, the vacuum cleaner, a blow dryer and a blender all operate at very loud levels, anywhere from 80-90 dB. Additionally, a passing motorcycle, hand drill, gas lawn mower or MP3 player can produce sound levels topping 110 dB. 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 dB 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. Sound 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 cochlea of the inner ear. Because intact hair cells are required to send electrical impulses to the brain, damage to them can result in permanent hearing loss.
Use hearing protection
Unfortunately, we live in a noisy world and sometimes, exposure to potentially damaging sound levels is unavoidable. There are several professions which can put you at risk for hearing loss on a daily basis, such as:
- Construction workers
- Military personnel
- 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 people who work in a noisy environment can take. There are several types of hearing protection available, from low-cost, low-tech foam or wax to high-tech, high-end noise cancellation devices. When you work in a noisy place, understand your rights, your employer's responsibilities and your responsibilities.
If your workplace is noisy, learn about your rights and advocate for your hearing health!
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. Earplugs can be disposable or reusable, soft-fit or banded. If you must wear earplugs frequently, you might opt for customized earplugs, which can be made to fit comfortably.
Earmuffs or noise-cancelation earphones are other options for hearing protection. These selections often offer more protection against prolonged or higher levels of noise. These devices work by covering the entire ear, which stops loud noise from getting to the ear.
Hearing protection devices will only work if you wear them consistently and properly. If unsure of which type of protection to use, schedule an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional.
Get a hearing test
Preventing hearing loss means being proactive in your approach to hearing health. If you wouldn't hesitate to have your eyes or teeth checked, it is time to add regular hearing exams to your list of check-ups.
Getting a baseline test is a good idea so you can track your hearing over time. This can be done anytime, even if you are not already noticing symptoms of hearing loss. In fact, the sooner you begin tracking your hearing ability, the better. If your test indicates you already have some hearing loss, you can begin taking action to prevent it from getting worse. If you need hearing aids, your hearing professional can discuss the best options for your hearing loss, lifestyle and budget.
Lifelong hearing health starts with you.
Pay attention to noise levels at work and at play. There's no need to stop enjoying the hobbies you love if you can take reasonable steps to protect your ears from noise.
If you need a baseline hearing test, or if you suspect you may already have some hearing loss, visit our extensive directory to find a dedicated hearing healthcare professional near you.
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