Sound Advice: Protect Your Ears

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on January 16, 2017

Approximately 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69—or 26 million Americans—have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to noise at work or in leisure activities. As many as 16 percent of teens (ages 12 to 19) have reported some hearing loss that could have been caused by loud noise, according to a 2010 report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association

Noise is a fact of modern life. Many of us work in environments where noise is a significant factor. We commute with earbuds in our ears and maintain our lawns with loud mowers and leaf blowers, and our children wear headphones to play online games and listen to music.

What is all that noise doing to our hearing, and what can we do about it?

According to Anita Jeyakumar, M.D., section chief of Carilion Clinic’s pediatric otolaryngology team, most noise-induced hearing loss is caused by the damage and eventual death of the hair cells within the cochlea.

"The cochlea is a snail-shaped structure within our inner ear that contains fluid and cells called hair cells," she explained. "When sound comes to the ear, a fluid wave is created that moves the hair cells generating an electrical signal that travels via the auditory (hearing) nerve to the brain. The brain translates the electrical signal into a sound that we recognize and understand."

Noise is characterized by intensity (decibels), pitch (hertz or kilohertz) and duration. A typical conversation is conducted at about 60 decibels and noises above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. Prolonged exposure to loud noise destroys the nerve endings in the inner ear. People differ in their sensitivity to noise, but the closer you are and the longer you are exposed to it, the more damaging it may be.

"Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells do not grow back after being damaged or dying," said Dr. Jeyakumar. "They are gone for good and there is permanent hearing loss." 

Noise-related hearing loss is usually painless and develops gradually, so many people do not notice it is happening. Signs to watch for include:

  • Ringing in your ears, known as tinnitus
  • Trouble understanding people in restaurants or noisy places
  • Preferring a louder volume on the television than others in your household

Preventing noise-related hearing loss is vital, because it cannot be reversed.

At Work
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), noise may be a problem at your workplace if:

  • You hear ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work
  • You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm's length away
  • You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work

These signs can apply outside the workplace too.

When workers are exposed to 85 decibels (90 on construction sites) for eight hours or more, OSHA requires businesses to implement hearing conservation programs that incorporate engineering controls, administrative controls and hearing protection devices, such as earmuffs and plugs.
At Home
Wear earplugs or ear muffs when using power tools and noisy yard equipment. Look for the following characteristics when choosing protective ear wear:

  • Earplugs that fit into the outer ear canal. Use either disposable or custom-made plugs that are clean and well-fitting
  • Ear muffs that form an air seal around the ear and are held in place by an adjustable band

Better yet, use a rake and enjoy the fitness benefits too!

At Play
Studies show that wearing earbuds to listen to music can damage your ears. This is particularly important for children, who are forming lifelong habits now. Dr. Jeyakumar recommends several tips for earbuds and headphones:

  • Turn it down—it is too loud if you can’t hear external sounds or if the person next to you can hear the music
  • Use the 60:60 rule—listen at less than 60 percent of the maximum volume for less than 60 minutes per day
  • Choose headphones over earbuds—they are better at blocking other sounds so you are less tempted to turn up the volume
  • Use earplugs at live music venues

And be sure to wear earplugs or ear muffs when riding motorcycles or snowmobiles and when using firearms.

Consult your primary care provider if you are experiencing symptoms of hearing loss. He or she can test for an ear infection or other underlying condition and refer you to an otolaryngologist for a hearing test if needed.