You are at risk of hearing loss. How to prevent it.

By Dr. Yvette Lu.

May is speech and hearing awareness month, making it the perfect time to discuss how to prevent hearing loss! When I started researching this topic, I was surprised to find that 47% of adults aged 60-79 have hearing loss. Even more interesting is that out of the people who have hearing loss, 70% of adults and 83% of children are unaware of their condition.

For a quick overview of how to prevent hearing loss, check out my recent chat on Breakfast Television. For more detailed information and some fun charts, keep reading!


Who is at risk of hearing loss?

Hearing loss is a problem that we often experience, for example during an airplane flight, after going to a loud concert, or maybe during an ear infection. Usually, these are temporary problems. More concerning is permanent hearing loss.

Age-related hearing loss is the most common cause of permanent hearing loss. We will all get age-related hearing loss eventually if we live long enough. We can’t do much about that… But we can prevent another common form of hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss. Exposure to excessive noise can also permanently damage hearing.

Permanent hearing loss is an important health concern that is often unrecognized and untreated. It can have many emotional and social consequences including social isolation, mood disorders, safety issues, mobility limitations, reduced income and employment opportunities, and poor quality of life. In children, it can affect academic performance, language development, and learning. A hearing test is one of the first things I order when a child comes into my office with delayed language development.


How to prevent hearing loss?

The best way to prevent hearing loss is to protect yourself from loud noises. Repeated exposure to excessive noise for long periods of time can cause permanent hearing damage. A single exposure to an intense sound (like a gun shot) can also cause permanent hearing loss. Loud noises can also worsen age-related hearing loss. Until recently, noise-induced hearing loss was usually caused by excessive noise in the workplace. Now with stricter regulations, recreational and everyday activities are more frequently the cause of hearing loss, especially in young people. Loud mp3 players, concerts, nightclubs, and garden tools are a few of the culprits.

As a general rule, if you have to shout to make yourself heard to someone two meters away, then the ambient noise is too loud. If you have ringing in your ear or dull hearing after exposure to noise, then that noise has been too loud. The key number is 85dB, which is the volume of a lawn mower or loud traffic. Continued exposure to noise above the level of 85dB can cause hearing loss.

Here’s a chart that looks at how long you can be exposed to a noise level before you risk damaging your hearing.

For every 3 dBAs over 85dBA, the exposure time before possible damage can occur is cut in half.

Decibel Exposure Time Guidelines

Source: Dangerous Decibels

Dangerous decibels is a great website with information about hearing loss prevention, particularly in children.

And here’s a chart from WSJ which gives you an idea of what those decibel levels mean in everyday life:


Source: Wall Street Journal: Behind the Music: IPods and Hearing Loss

To assess your daily risk, you have to consider all the noise you’re exposed to on a given day – you may have two activities that separately don’t put you at increased risk, but because they both happen on the same day, then your exposure would cross the risk threshold for that day.

Tips for prevention:

  • Don’t have your TV, radio, or music on too loud, particularly if there are young children in the house, as their ears are more sensitive. If you need to raise your voice to be heard above the TV, turn it down.
  • If you can’t hear external sounds when you have your headphones on, or if the person next to you can hear the music, it’s too loud.
  • 60:60 rule – listen to your music at 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes per day. Take breaks from your headphones to give your ears a rest. Also be careful in the car, because you are listening to music in a confined space.
  • Use headphones that block out outside noise, rather than turning up the volume.
  • Use ear protection equipment when you work in noisy environments – eg a pub, nightclub, garage workshop or building site, or when using noisy equipment – eg. power tools, yard equipment, riding a motorcycle/snowmobile, using firearms.
  • People worry about not being able to hear properly with ear protection on, but just as sunglasses help vision in bright light, hearing protectors can enhance speech understanding in noisy places.
  • For people with damaged hearing, hearing protection may reduce the ability to understand normal conversation, but protection must be worn to prevent further damage.
  • Use ear protection at loud concerts and other events that have high noise levels like motor races. You can get specially designed musician earplugs if you frequently go to concerts, and sound quality is important to you. At these events, stand away from the speakers and use the chill-out zones, which give you a break from the loudest areas.
  • Give yourself recovery time. You need at least 16-48 hours of rest for your ears away from loud noises after spending 2 hours in 100 dB sound, eg. in a nightclub. Reducing recovery time increases risk of permanent hearing loss.
  • Particularly in children, vaccinations are important to prevent illnesses that can cause permanent hearing loss (eg. measles, chicken pox, mumps, rubella).


When to get your hearing tested?

See your doctor if you have any signs and symptoms of hearing loss, for example:

  • asking people to repeat things or speak louder
  • having difficulty understanding or following conversations
  • having to concentrate to understand what people say
  • a feeling that your ear is plugged
  • listening to the TV or radio at a higher volume than in the past
  • ringing, roaring or buzzing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • a feeling that you or your surroundings are spinning (vertigo)
  • ear pain, itching, irritation of the ear, or fluid leaking from the ear

Your doctor will start by looking for reversible and medical causes of hearing loss.

For permanent hearing loss, hearing amplification (eg. getting a hearing aid) can help improve communication and quality of life. Hearing amplification won’t restore hearing completely. It usually improves hearing by only one half of the loss, which is all the more reason to do what you can to prevent hearing loss before it occurs!

I hope this post inspires you to protect your hearing! Please share and comment below.


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