There are a number of reasons for hearing loss, not the least of which is aging, but living in a world that is filled with ear piercing decibel levels is not helping. This October, the crowd roar at Arrowhead Stadium during a Kansas City Chiefs game, was recorded at an all time high for a sporting event…137.5 decibels just under the pain threshold of 140 decibels, and comparable to a jet engine at takeoff.
It turns out that 1 in 5 Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear, including about three out of every 1000 children, who are born deaf or hard of hearing. Some of the factors that can lead to hearing loss are beyond our control, but some are not.
Risk Factors for Hearing Loss
1 Aging – Over the years, exposure to sounds can damage the cells of the inner ear.
2 Heredity – A person’s genetic makeup can make one more susceptible to ear damage and hearing loss.
3 Occupational Noises – The repetitive exposure to loud noises in the work environment, such as farming, construction or factory work, can lead to damage inside the ear.
4 Recreational Noises – Exposure to loud noises such as gunfire and fireworks can cause immediate hearing loss. Other activities with dangerously high decibel levels include motorcycling, rock concerts, and car races. Listening to personal music players, like MP3 players may also cause permanent hearing loss if the volume is too high.
5 Medications – Some medicines, including some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs, can cause hearing loss. Tinnitus or ringing in the ears can be caused by high doses of aspirin, some other pain relief medicines, anti-malarial drugs and diuretics.
6 Illness – Some conditions or diseases that result in high fever such as meningitis may damage the cochlea, a part of the inner ear.
Well-Being spoke to Thomas L. Eby, M.D., F.A.C.S., Professor of Otolaryngology and Neurology at University of Mississippi Medical Center about some of the most common causes of hearing loss.
“A few years ago there was a lot written about ‘noise pollution’ and how it affects hearing,” notes Dr. Eby. “The problem with using that terminology is that it suggests that only unpleasant sounds, such as loud traffic, construction noise, sirens, or explosions, are culprits for hearing loss. In reality, it is not the type of noise, but the intensity and duration of sound that causes hearing loss, whether it is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony played at dangerous levels or standing near a jet engine.”
According to Dr. Eby, most preventable hearing loss is caused by noise, but infections and other diseases can also cause damage to the inner ear. The sooner such conditions are treated the less likely a person is to experience permanent hearing loss.
“By far, most hearing loss comes with aging and a lifetime of exposure to noise, but it can also be genetic,” Eby adds. “When you have experienced intense sound that is too loud or that you have been exposed to for too long a time, you may feel as though your ears are stopped up and may hear ringing. That is a warning sign that damage could occur to your hearing if the sound continues.”
Decibel Levels of Common Sounds
One way we can protect ourselves from hearing loss caused by noise in the environment is to be aware of the decibel levels of various sounds at safe, risky and dangerous ranges.
SAFE Range – Noise source – Decibels
Whisper – 30
Normal conversation – 60
Washing machine – 70
RISK Range – Noise source – Decibels
Heavy traffic 85 – 90
Power lawn mower 85 – 90
Hair dryer 85 – 90
Hand drill 100
Chain saw 110
Rock concert 110
INJURY Range – Noise source – Decibels
Ambulance siren – 120
Jet engine at takeoff – 140 (Pain threshold)
12-guage shotgun blast – 165
Rocket launch – 180
Adapted from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2008; the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 2009; and American Tinnitus Association, 2009
Protection Against Dangerous Sound Levels and Duration
The best protection against hearing loss is the appropriate use of ear protection. OSHA requires that employees be offered a variety of hearing protection devices, including ear muffs and ear plugs, but even if your employer doesn’t make ear protection devices available, it is important to prevent over- exposure to damaging noise with a device that fits comfortably, blocks sound efficiently and allows for verbal communication when necessary.
The following gives the guidelines, developed by OSHA to determine the length of time it is safe to experience sound at various decibel levels.
Maximum Job-Noise Exposure Allowed by Law
Sound Level, decibels – Duration daily
90 – 8 hours
92 – 6 hours
95 – 4 hours
97 – 3 hours
100 – 2 hours
102 – 1.5 hours
105 – 1 hour
110 – 30 minutes
115 – 15 minutes or less
Source: Department of Labor – Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 2005
Advanced Solutions for Hearing Loss
Newborn Screening. Although it is not a treatment, per se, one of the greatest breakthroughs for hearing loss in children is newborn hearing screening. Infants with positive tests (indicative of potential hearing impairment) can be referred for definitive testing and intervention services. When congenital hearing loss is not recognized and managed early, a child’s speech, language and cognitive development can be severely delayed.
Ear Tubes. Many infants and children have chronic ear infections that can cause fluid in the middle ear. When untreated the condition can cause hearing problems or speech delays. Doctors may suggest ear tubes for a child who has had repeated middle ear infections or who has begun to experience hearing loss caused by the persistent presence of middle ear fluid. Children generally outgrow the tendency for ear infections and tubes are no longer needed.
New generation hearing aids. The hearing aid is the number one treatment for permanent hearing loss. Each generation of devices is more comfortable, less visible and easier to use. One new device is called a bone conduction hearing aid, which transmits sound through a special screw behind the ear. An advanced form of this kind of aid is implanted under the skin and attached with a magnet. Another bone conduction aid is a dental implant that transmits sound through the teeth.
Cochlear Implants. A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that gives a sense of sound for a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. These implants often can enable improved hearing for better understanding of conversation. While the quality of sound is different from natural hearing, many patients are able to hear and understand speech and environmental sounds. Newer generation implants may allow recipients to hear better in noise, enjoy music, and even use their implant processors while swimming.
Don’t Suffer in Silence
“Many people are in denial about having hearing loss,” adds Dr. Eby. “They may be experiencing problems hearing at the dinner table, at church, or in crowds, and they may find that they have to keep turning up the television, but they just don’t want to admit it. The good news is that there are a number of solutions for treating hearing loss that are much more satisfactory than their older counterparts. If you find you often have to ask people to repeat what they are saying to you or if you feel like you are missing important information, don’t be afraid…have your hearing checked. Your sense of hearing is too precious to let hearing loss needlessly isolate you from the life you can be living.”
Thomas L. Eby, MD, FACS, Professor of Otolaryngology and Neurology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, received his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Wisconsin. He finished his otolaryngology residency at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Dr. Eby also completed a Fellowship in Otopathology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and in Neurotology at University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland. He is board certified in Otolaryngology and in Neurotology.