You can wear a helmet to protect your head, gloves for your hands and safety glasses for your eyes. You also can take steps to protect your ears from hearing loss that can affect your ability to understand normal speech.
Noise-induced hearing loss can occur painlessly and over an extended period of time. But it doesn’t have to. Dr. Richard Barnes, otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) and head and neck surgeon on staff at Des Peres Hospital, provides some guidance.
“Hearing loss happens in the inner ear where small bones help transfer sound vibrations to different cells and nerves,” Barnes said. “The brain then interprets these signals as sounds such as music, a baby crying or dog barking. Very loud, prolonged noises can start to kill these nerve endings, ultimately resulting in permanent damage.”
Barnes explained that noise can be characterized in three ways: loudness is the intensity of sound measured in decibels; pitch, or the frequency of sound vibrations per second, is gauged in hertz or kilohertz; and duration is the length of time the noise is heard.
“Loudness and duration have a direct impact on each other,” Barnes said. “The louder the sound, the shorter the exposure can be before hearing is affected.”
The human ear hears sound on a scale of zero to more than 180 decibels. Ears can be damaged by sounds at or above 85 decibels. To get some idea of how loud is loud, a whisper is about 30 decibels, normal conversation is 60, motorcycle is 95, loud rock concert is 110 and firecracker is 150.
Barnes points out you may not notice hearing loss because it can develop over a period of several years. But you could become aware of a ringing or other sound in your ear called tinnitus. You also could gradually start to have a harder time understanding what people say, especially in noisy places.
"One of the first symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss is the inability to hear high-pitched sounds such as birds singing," Barnes said. "Lower pitched sounds also become more difficult to understand as the damage progresses."
Dr. Barnes suggests a few ways to protect your ears against hearing loss:
- You can start by avoiding or limiting exposure to extremely loud sounds, turning down the volume of loud music and moving away from loud sounds when possible.
- You also can use sound-absorbing materials such as a rubber mat under a noisy kitchen appliance and not use several noisy machines at the same time or drown out unwanted noise with other sounds.
- Another important way to ensure against hearing loss is to wear hearing protection devices such as earplugs or earmuffs when in an excessively noisy environment. For example, earplugs or earmuffs should be worn when riding a motorcycle, firing a gun, using power tools or operating noisy yard equipment.
“Earplugs can quiet up to 25 decibels of sound and may mean the difference between dangerous and safe levels of noise,” Barnes said.
If you think that you may have hearing loss, talk with your physician or call 1-888-457-5203 for a free referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist.