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Protect Your Hearing: Turn up the Fun, Not the Volume

Know the dangers of loud noise on your hearing and take precautions

Protecting your hearing in summer

Loud sounds –like gas-powered lawn equipment, power tools, personal listening devices, concerts and fireworks– are all around us. While we can’t always avoid our exposure to them, taking precautions can help prevent hearing loss.

During National Protect Your Hearing Month, neurotologist/skull base surgeon Ravi Samy, MD, Chief, Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Lehigh Valley Health Network, shares what everyone should know about protecting their hearing.

Did You Know?

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.5 billion people – nearly 20% of the global population – live with hearing loss.

Hearing hazards

Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB), and sounds at 70 dB or less are considered safe. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says researchers have found that people who are exposed over extended periods of time to noise levels at 85 dB or higher are at a much greater risk for hearing loss.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says repeated exposure to loud noise over the years affects how well you hear later in life and how quickly you develop hearing problems, even after exposure has stopped. The experts there tell us loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears.

While we all can’t carry around decibel meters, there are numerous smartphone apps and smart watches out there to help check your surroundings. There are even apps that offer hearing tests.

Hearing: The hair-raising truth

You have thousands of hair cells in your inner ear in the fluid-filled, snail-shaped structure called the cochlea. The hair cells convert sound vibrations to electrical signals, which your auditory nerve carries to your brain.

When those hair cells are damaged and die because of loud noise over time, the result is irreversible hearing loss. There is no cure, but research is ongoing.

 “Hearing loss is an important issue with far-reaching effects on a person’s quality of life.” - Ravi Samy, MD

Here are some examples of sounds you may encounter and their average dB levels.

  • Normal conversation – 60 dB
  • Gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers – 80-85 dB
  • Motorcycle engine – 95 dB
  • Loud nightclubs or rock concerts – 105-110 dB (Kiss reportedly reached an ear-popping 136 dB in 2009 at a concert in Ottawa, Canada)
  • Shouting or barking in the ear – 110 dB
  • Standing beside or near sirens – 120 dB
  • Jet engine from 100 yards – 135 dB
  • Gunshot – 140 dB
  • Firecrackers – 140-150 dB

Risking your hearing has to do with sound intensity, not loudness, which is how you as an individual perceive audible sounds. Intensity is the amount of sound energy in a confined space, and it can get dangerous in a hurry.

According to the CDC, a sound at 20 dB is 10 times more intense than a sound at 10 dB, and the intensity of a sound at 100 dB is one billion times more powerful compared to a sound at 10 dB.

Protection is key

You may not be able to turn down every sound, but there are precautions you can take, like moving away from the source of the noise or using certain protective items.

Dr. Samy says protecting your hearing with things such as earplugs or earmuffs is important. “Everyone likes to think it was one big thing that caused their hearing loss, but the reality is that it’s a lifestyle choice,” he says. “Eating that one fast-food burger might not be a big deal, but if you’re always eating them that can be cumulative over time, and you risk health problems such as diabetes later in life. The same can apply to hearing.”

Federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulate noise levels on the job, but no such regulations apply at home, so it’s important to be aware of noise exposure. Using a loud vacuum for a brief time probably won’t be a problem, but using one every day for prolonged periods of time is a different story, Dr. Samy says.

Dr. Samy, with more than 20 years of experience in the field, advises using hearing protection when noise levels are above 70 dB. He’s also a proponent of annual hearing tests. “That 14-year-old who got a hearing test in school probably won’t get another hearing test until he’s 70,” he says. “More regular testing can help us intervene sooner. Prevention is better than the cure.”

Another reason to protect your hearing is the link between hearing loss and dementia. Research has shown those with hearing loss have a higher risk for developing dementia. A Johns Hopkins study showed those with severe hearing loss are five times more likely to develop dementia.

NIH reports 15% of Americans 18 and older – about 37.5 million people – report some type of hearing loss. Men are almost twice as likely as women to have hearing loss among adults age 20-69, according to NIH.

“Hearing loss is an important issue with far-reaching effects on a person’s quality of life,” Dr. Samy says. “With increased education about protection and more frequent testing, we can make a difference.”

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is the sudden or gradual decrease in hearing. Causes include aging, exposure to loud sounds or illness or injuries that lead to hearing loss.

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