Hearing Loss Prevention Guide

Girl listening with her hand on an ear

Friends, lend me your ears. Today is International Noise Awareness Day – a good opportunity to turn down your headphones and listen to these tips on how to protect your hearing. You may be surprised to learn just how many ways noise can impact your health.

Hearing loss is incredibly common, affecting an estimated one third of Americans between ages 65 and 75, and about one half of people over 75. In total, approximately 28 million Americans have some kind of hearing impairment and rates of hearing loss have doubled over the past 30 years. While hearing loss with increasing age, called presbycusis, is among the most common causes of hearing loss, younger people are beginning to see an uptick in symptoms as well – often due to exposure to loud noises. The most important things to know is that most hearing loss is preventable, but once the damage is done, it’s usually permanent. So listen up.

The most common type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss. This occurs when the inner ear or the nerve responsible for hearing becomes damaged, usually due to aging, loud noise, disease, medications or genetics. This type of hearing loss is usually permanent, though hearing aids may help.

Long-term exposure to loud noises is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to losing our hearing. Both how intense the sound is, and how long it goes on, can determine the harm done. Noises are measured in decibels, with zero decibels being the quietest sound a human ear can hear. Experts think that exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can harm hearing over time. For comparison, a washing machine is about 70 decibels, the average sound of traffic from within a car is about 85 and a blow dryer is about 100.

Over time, noise wears down the tiny, fragile hair cells in the inner ear that we need in order to hear. This noise-induced hearing loss usually doesn’t cause pain and occurs gradually – by the time you notice it, it’s usually too late to reverse it. Sometimes immediately after exposure to loud noises, you may notice that you have ringing in your ears or that sounds are muffled. While this may be temporary, repeated episodes like this increase your risk for lasting problems. Just one rock concert can do damage.

Symptoms of hearing loss can include trouble following conversations – especially if there is background noise – trouble hearing high-pitched sounds or understanding higher-pitched voices, needing to turn up the television or radio volume, or sensitivity to certain sounds. You should see a doctor if you think you are losing your hearing. Symptoms like persistent ringing in your ears, feeling dizzy or off-balance or constantly feeling pressure in your ears may signal more serious health problems like Meniere’s disease or a type of tumor called an acoustic neuroma, and should prompt you to seek medical attention right away.

And believe it or not, noise exposure doesn’t just affect our ears. According to the Center for Hearing and Communication, noise has been shown to disrupt sleep, increase blood pressure, affect the function of the digestive system, and increase anxiety.

Here are a few tips to help you protect your ears from the everyday barrage of noise.

  • Wear earplugs. Foam earplugs are cheap, safe and easy to use, and can cut noise by 20 to 30 decibels. Keep a pair handy for loud places like concerts, amusement parks or even the trailers at the movies, which are often louder than the movie itself.
  • Turn down the volume. If you’re listening to music with headphones, make sure you can still hear what’s going on around you – if you can’t, it’s probably too loud. Don’t turn your player up beyond 60% of the maximum volume level and try not to listen for more than an hour a day. Some players have automatic volume limiters that will keep the sound at a safe level. Noise-canceling headphones may help you hear your music better by cutting out loud background noise so you don’t have to keep the volume on high.
  • Protect yourself at work. If your workplace is loud, talk to your manager or human resources department about whether changes can be made to quiet things down or whether they will provide you with protective resources.
  • Rest your ears. After being in a loud environment, give your hearing a quiet rest for at least 24 hours.
  • Sleep in peace. Sounds should be kept under 35 decibels (which is in between a whisper and the hum of a refrigerator) to avoid sleep disturbance. Intermittent noises usually disrupt sleep more than constant ones.