The Sounds of Silence

Noise-induced hearing loss a growing problem

SUNDAY, Dec. 9, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Leaf blowers, ear-splitting music, jet skis, factory machinery and even noisy restaurants are just parts of the daily symphony of danger that poses a serious threat to your hearing.

It's called noise-induced hearing loss and it affects about 10 million Americans. It can be caused by exposure to loud noise over long periods of time, or by loud, short bursts of sound such as gunshots or fireworks.

Although people seem to be more aware of the impact of noise on their hearing, it's not clear whether they're changing their behavior, says Nancy Nadler, director of the Noise Center of the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York City.

"We need to help people understand how important their hearing is to them before it's too late. Because once you suffer from a noise-induced hearing loss, there's nothing you can do. You cannot get your hearing back," Nadler stresses.

Nadler says the overall increase in noise pollution in our society may be one reason for more cases of hearing loss in the United States. In a study released in April 2000, her organization found a dramatic increase in the occurrence of hearing loss.

During the 18-year study, audiologists screened 64,000 people at random and found the incidence of hearing loss increased from 15 percent to 60 percent in all age groups.

And about 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise at work, says the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Loud noises cause hearing loss by damaging or killing hair cells in your ears. Any sound at or above 85 decibels (dB) threatens to hurt your ears. Your normal conversation is about 60 dB. The sounds of motorcycles, gunshots and firecrackers can be 120 to 140 dB.

"A good rule of thumb -- if you have to raise your voice in order to speak with someone and you're three feet away, then the background noise is too loud and it's dangerous to your hearing," Nadler says.

Most people aren't concerned about threats to their hearing in the same way they worry about damage to their eyes, says Dr. Rick A. Friedman, a physician at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

"You go to a movie theater and people cheer [so loud] that the sound vibrates their bodies. But if you put them in the same room and told them that there was a danger of losing their vision, I don't think the auditorium would be full," Friedman says.

He and Nadler emphasize there's no need for you to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. This is a health problem that can be prevented with simple measures:

  • Try to avoid areas with loud noise. If you find yourself "ambushed" by unexpected loud noise, plug your ears with your fingers. If you're in a restaurant and the music is too loud, ask the staff to lower the volume, Nadler says.
  • Keep the volume on your stereo or television at a reasonable level. Louder isn't better. Try to buy the quietest yard equipment, home appliances, and power tools.
  • Wear ear plugs or protective ear muffs in settings with loud noise. Simple foam earplugs can reduce your noise exposure by 25 dB, Friedman says. Custom ear protection is available for musicians and other people who need to shield their ears from noise but also rely on their hearing to work.

Although the need to wear ear protection may be obvious in a place like a factory, Friedman says you should protect your ears anywhere there's loud noise.

"If you go to a concert, bring ear plugs. If you go to the discotheque, bring ear plugs," he says.

What To Do

Pay attention to any warning signs of hearing loss. Symptoms of noise damage include:

  • Ringing or pain in the ears;
  • Sounds that are muffled;
  • Difficulty hearing quiet sounds;
  • A feeling of fullness in ears.

For more information, visit the National Institutes of Health, or the Noise Center of the League for the Hard of Hearing.

SOURCES: Interviews with Nancy Nadler, M.E.D., M.A., director, Noise Center of the League for the Hard of Hearing, New York City; Rick A. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., physician, House Ear Institute, Los Angeles
Consumer News