Are You Unknowingly Damaging Your Ears?

From iPods to weed whackers, there are more ways than ever to subject your ears to potentially deafening noises. But tuning out and turning down the most damaging sounds can help protect your hearing for years to come.

“This is a very noisy country, and we’re exposed to loud sounds every day,” says Dr. Debbie Abel, director of reimbursement and practice compliance for the American Academy of Audiology in Reston, Va. “More people are losing their hearing, and it’s happening at a younger age. Baby boomers were the first to go to rock concerts with any regularity…and bars and nightclubs are much louder than they were years ago. Just the [loud] hustle and bustle of street traffic is worse.”

Noisy neighborhood

Roughly 15 percent of people ages 20 to 69 experience high-frequency hearing loss that may have been caused by the cumulative effect of being around loud noises, according to the National Institutes of Health. Over time, noises that are too loud can damage inner ear hair cells, which convert sounds into signals that travel to the brain. The damaged hair cells cannot grow back, so the resulting hearing loss is permanent.

Typically, you get temporary hearing loss first, and you might even notice ringing in your ears after exposure to loud noise. That means you’re doing some damage to your ears. The temporary hearing loss usually goes away after you’ve removed yourself from that exposure, but repeated exposure can compound the damage.

Over time, you may notice that sounds seem to become more muffled or distorted–signs that the ears have been damaged. It can feel as if it happens overnight. You don’t realize you have hearing loss until you realize that you have trouble understanding people talking to you, and you feel that people are mumbling.

How much is too much?

Sudden sounds that are very loud and very close, such as an explosion, can cause hearing loss, as can prolonged exposure to any noise over 85 decibels. That’s approximately the sound level of a hair dryer, blender or lawnmower.

Noisemakers can show up during both work and recreational activities. Industrial machinery, guns, power tools, leaf blowers, snowmobiles, sporting events and music concerts are some of the most common culprits.

Turning down the volume

Being aware of potentially hazardous noises is the first step to protecting your hearing. The rule of thumb is, if you’re talking to someone a foot away and you can’t hear them because it’s so noisy, then you need to protect your hearing or remove yourself.

For those ubiquitous earphones worn by users of iPods and other electronic devices, doctors recommend the “60/60” rule. No louder than 60 percent volume for 60 minutes at a time. And if you’re sitting with someone who’s listening with earphones and you can hear the music, that’s way too loud for them.

If you’re not in a position to turn down the volume or walk away from the noise source, you can bring down the sound level hitting your ears by wearing ear plugs or specialty ear muffs, usually available in sporting goods and hardware stores.

Getting treatment

If you suspect that you’ve already suffered some hearing loss, contact your physician for a complete physical exam and ask about having your hearing tested by an audiologist.

Hearing aids are the main treatment available for noise-induced hearing loss, but researchers for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders are investigating gene therapy as a possible technique for one day regrowing hair cells in the ears. Other ongoing NIDCD studies suggest that certain nutrients may help create a window of opportunity to restore hearing after noise trauma.

3 ways to prevent noise-induced hearing loss:

  1. Wear hearing protection.
  2. Turn down the volume.
  3. Walk away.

Loud noises

Noises louder than 85 decibels can cause noise-induced hearing loss with prolonged exposure:

Normal conversation: 60 decibels

Alarm clock: 80 decibels

Hair dryer, blender, lawnmower : 90 decibels

MP3 player at full volume: 100 decibels

Concert, car racing, sporting event: 110 decibels

Jet plane at takeoff : 120 decibels

Ambulance: 130 decibels

Gun shots, fireworks: 140 decibels

Source: American Academy of Audiology