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High Volume, High Tech Can Lead to Hearing Loss

Terry Corso, M.S.
Audiology, Rush Copley Medical Group

Q: I am concerned about my teenage son's hearing. He always has headphones on with his iPod and watches television with the volume very loud. Could he be damaging his hearing?

A: Being exposed to loud noise, like music or television, over and over is one of the most common causes of permanent hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss usually develops slowly and without pain or other symptoms. The loss may go unnoticed until it is severe. Though permanent, this kind of hearing loss is almost entirely preventable.

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when sound energy is strong enough to bend tiny hair cells in the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. The force of loud noise can damage these hair cells. A small amount of damage may have no effect on hearing, but with repeated exposure, more of the hair cells are damaged, resulting in hearing loss.

In order to determine the severity of hearing loss, a hearing test should be performed by a physician. Depending on the results of the test, your doctor may refer you to an audiologist. Audiologists are health care professionals trained to measure hearing. The audiologist will use an audiometer to test your ability to hear sounds of different pitch and loudness.

The audiologist can determine if the hearing loss is in the middle or inner ear. Middle ear loss is usually reversible or treatable. Inner ear hearing loss is more likely to be irreversible. An Otoacoustic Emissions test looks specifically at the hair cells in the inner ear. This is a great tool for people exposed to noise, as is can give a warning if hair cell damage is present, but has not appeared yet in a hearing test. This test can determine if there is hearing loss present or if the hair cells are acting normally.

Whether a hearing loss is small or large, it is a serious concern. If left untreated, problems can get worse. Here are some steps you can take to lower your risk of noise-induced hearing loss:

  • Control the volume — Reduce noise pollution in your life by turning down the volume on the MP3, TV and radios. Pay special attention to the level of volume with devices that use earphones.
  • Avoid harmful noise — Exposure to harmful noises at can occur at work, home and many other settings. This exposure builds up over time and can result in ear damage and hearing loss. Noises from common things like lawn mowers, power tools, snowblowers and motorcycles can be harmful. Be aware of the what kinds of situations can generate harmful noise levels and avoid these situations when possible.
  • Use ear protection — If you know you are going to be around harmful noise, wear ear protection, such as earplugs. When used correctly, these protectors can reduce the level of sound that reaches the ear. I recommend and custom fit ear molds for my patients who are exposed to loud noises on a regular basis. These noise reduction molds can often times reduce the amount of noise that gets to the inner ear by as much as 25dB, which is a significant amount.

For people who just can't enough of their MP3 players or iPods, you want to make sure that the volume is kept at a lower level if you will be wearing the device for a significant amount of time.