By John R. Simpson, M.D., F.A.C.S
In this issue, we continue our Hearing Health Wellness Series that features natural and non-natural factors that impact hearing health. This month’s feature focuses on hearing protection through important awareness tips.
The Dangers of Noise
Most people are surprised to learn that noise, not age, is the leading cause of hearing loss. While we may be accustomed to the noises that surround us, we may not be aware of the damage they can cause. Noise-induced hearing loss is a major problem in the United States, and while there are many laws to regulate noise in the workplace, there are few that monitor other environments. The average age of hearing loss is dropping, with one in eight children and teens reported to have permanent hearing loss due to high-volume sounds.
Take music, for instance. Most Americans consume music at dangerously loud levels and often don’t even realize it. Concerts are a common situation where exposure to dangerous sound levels occur.
How Loud is too Loud?
Most people do not know when noise has reached a dangerous level. Many audiologists agree that any sound louder than 85 decibels (dB)—the equivalent of busy city traffic—begins to pose a health risk. Sounds that exceed this level include a rock concert (115dB), a jet plane engine from 100 feet (135dB), and gunshots (145dB).
Taking the example of a concert, a person can only listen to music at that level, without hearing protection, for a little less than 30 seconds before damaging their hearing. Unfortunately, most concert-goers don’t wear hearing protection for a variety of reasons. Many people cite that wearing protection interferes with the “true” concert experience or “feeling” the music. Others refuse because their ears always seem to bounce back even after experiencing a “noise hangover.” But that ringing sensation experienced post-concert— the one that significantly impairs hearing for hours to days later, and can leave a lingering headache— is proof of damaged hearing.
Regardless of the reason, damage to the hearing system occurs every time. Because the effects of noise-induced damage take place very gradually, people underestimate the impact it has until ringing in the ears persists or communication is hindered due to hearing loss. At that point, the damage is irreversible.
What Can Be Done?
Fortunately, there are ways to protect hearing when faced with dangerous levels of noise. The first is to avoid situations where noise can cause damage, like being within 65 feet of fireworks or using loud tools like a jackhammer. If this is inevitable, using hearing protection, such as earplugs or other hearing protection, can help prevent against this kind of damage. Noise cancellation headphones may also be helpful. There is a wide-variety of hearing protection products available and some are specifically designed to preserve sound quality so that the integrity of music is not jeopardized—perfect for concert-goers!
Products like Starkey’s Sonic Valve earplugs provide protection for noisy environments and other extremely loud sounds. They take the “sting” out of blast noises and help reduce “noise hangover” from loud music.
Another sound protection solution, SoundGear, is ideal for hunters and shooters, industrial workers and military and law enforcement because the users still hear what is going on around them. The solution offers advanced digital technology capable of enhancing sound eight times over traditional hearing protection products while seamlessly suppressing noises starting at 80dB. A hearing professional can describe in detail hearing protection options and how they work.
If you question whether an environment has unsafe noise levels, consider using a sound level meter application, like SoundCheck, that allows users to measure the surrounding environmental noise level. The application can be downloaded right to your mobile device, allowing you to check noise levels wherever a person goes.
It’s also important to watch the volume on handheld electronics. Earbuds, much like surround sound speakers, bring sounds closer to ear, making the potential for damage much higher. When using these devices, keep the volume at an appropriate level. According to the World Health Organization, personal listening devices can play as high as 136dB with the average user setting falling between 75 and 105 dB. In general, if someone is wearing earbuds or headphones and the sound can still be heard from the device, the volume is too loud.
Parents should monitor their children’s electronics volume level since noise-induced hearing loss in children and teens is a growing problem.
If hearing loss is suspected in oneself or a loved one, a hearing professional can provide a base-line hearing test to determine if hearing falls within normal range.
Since 1988, Dr. John Simpson has served the communities of Athens and Winder as an ear, nose, and throat specialist. After obtaining both medical and dental degrees from Indiana University, Dr. Simpson completed a surgical internship and residency in otolaryngology at the University of Miami- Jackson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Simpson is married to Joy Chastain, MD, an Athens dermatologist. In addition to Dr. Simpson’s grown children they have two children together, Bella and Owen. Two dogs and two cats complete the family.