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Now Hear This

Can plugging in lead to tuning out?

Many earbud and headphone listeners assume that manufacturers build devices that will not allow for decibel levels in excess of safe limits, but this is not always the case, so it’s important to self-monitor both volume and duration.

Many earbud and headphone listeners assume that manufacturers build devices that will not allow for decibel levels in excess of safe limits, but this is not always the case, so it’s important to self-monitor both volume and duration.

Problem is, what seems like nothing more than a pleasant way to pass the time and enjoy an experience could be putting your hearing in serious jeopardy.

J. Lewis Romett, board certified otolaryngologist and founding member of Colorado ENT and Allergy, says, “Some of the less expensive earbuds and headphones do not block out surrounding noise, so people turn up the volume to block out ambient sound. These levels can lead to hearing loss.”

While young people in particular may have a tendency to crank up the volume, folks in all age categories seem to be tuning in with portable sound systems. How do we know what’s too loud and what’s not?

Dr. Romett explains that hearing loss is due to a combination of 1) volume or intensity of the sound, and 2) duration of the noise exposure. “Sounds above 85 decibels (dB)—this is the sound level at a busy intersection—will cause loss after several hours,” he says. “Sounds above 125 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss within seconds. The noise in a dance club typically is 110 decibels; at a rock concert near the speakers, the level is 120 decibels.

“As a general rule for both earbuds and headphones,” says Romett, “the volume should be no more than 60% of the maximum for no more than 60 minutes per day. A third of the maximum volume is generally safe for prolonged use. If someone else can hear the music while the buds or headphones are on, the music is too loud.”

The louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause damage. And as Dr. Romett explains, damage from noise is cumulative. “The damage that occurs today is added to the damage that occurred previously. Once a critical amount of damage is done, the hearing drops permanently.”

In a nutshell, here’s how we hear: Sound waves move through the ear canal to the eardrum, where they vibrate tiny bones in the middle ear. These tiny bones carry the vibrations to the cochlea. Fluid inside the cochlea vibrates a series of tiny hairs called cilia. The movement of the cilia stimulates the nerve cells, and they send signals to the brain. Middle school science class coming back to you?

Here’s the important part of our nutshell lesson: the cilia—those tiny hairs—are very fragile and very sensitive to loud noises. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds can injure or kill the cilia. When that happens, the cilia are unable to heal, and the result is permanent damage.

Dr. Romett says it’s important to find out if hearing damage has taken place. “At times hearing loss is reversible,” he says. “If the loss is found quickly and there is no more excessive noise exposure, the hearing loss may be temporary. Repeated exposure to excessive noise will result in a permanent loss of hearing. In addition, hearing loss due to noise exposure can cause tinnitus—ringing in the ears—that may be a lifelong condition.”

Keryn Maionchi, a clinical audiologist with Colorado ENT and Allergy, recommends a good baseline hearing test, which involves the patient answering questions about ringing or buzzing in the ears, followed by responding to beeping sounds in a soundbooth. “After completing the beeps in both ears,” says Maionchi, “we have the patient repeat a series of words. The last part of the test is to put an oscillator behind the ear and have them push a button if they hear beeps. This will tell us if they have a hearing loss that is permanent or possibly something that can be fixed by medicine or a surgical procedure.”

Did You Know?

When a person learns s/he has hearing loss, Maionchi says, the next step involves an ENT examination. Once the patient has been medically cleared, s/he meets with an audiologist to discuss hearing needs in various environments. Did You Know?

• Studies indicate that 12-15% of school-age children already have permanent hearing loss caused by everyday noise.1
• Experts point to earbuds as a major reason hearing loss in teens has increased 33 percent since 1994.2
• Common household items can emit ear-damaging noise levels, such as hair dryers and food processors, both emitting about 85 dB. A lawn mower emits about 90 dB, a circular saw about 115 dB.

Sources: New York Times Health|Science Jane Brody1; KGW.com Health News2