Avoiding Hearing Loss-- Infants and Children are the Most Susceptible to Loud Noise

Exposure to loud sounds for an extended period of time is the most common cause of hearing loss.  Damage to the fragile structures of the ears in childhood or youth may lead to hearing loss decades later.  And hearing loss is common, an estimated 30 million to 48 million Americans have hearing loss that significantly impairs the quality of their lives.

Hearing loss has important deleterious consequences for academic success, employment, health and social wellbeing.  The hearing impaired person may feel isolated, angry, embarrassed, depressed and may suffer loss of self-esteem.  Family members and co-workers are often frustrated by difficulty in communicating with individuals who do not seek help for their hearing problem because they think wearing a hearing aid would be embarrassing or demeaning.

Remember that noise-related hearing loss is usually irreversible.  So prevention by avoiding loud noise is essential to keeping hearing intact.  Workplace noise used to be the main cause of hearing loss but today it is recreational loud noise, for example from concerts, clubs and MP3 players.

Damage to hearing from loud noises depends on how loud the noises are and the length of exposure.  In addition, infants and children are more susceptible to hearing damage from loud sounds than adults are. Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels (dB) (similar to a lawn mower or loud traffic) can, over time, cause hearing loss.

There are accepted standards for permissible exposure to sound according to loudness (in decibels) and duration according to NIOSH and the CDC.  For example 8 hours of exposure to 85dB, the level of busy city traffic, is permissible. For every 3 dBs over 85dB, the permissible exposure time before possible damage can occur is cut in half. For example, the permissible time exposure for 94 dBs, the level of a power lawn mower or hair dryer, is only one hour.  A rock concert could reach levels of 105-115 dBs and any exposure beyond a few minutes could damage hearing.  But lower levels, such as between 80dB and 90dB can also cause permanent damage if you're exposed to them for hours every day. 

Some measures of loudness:

  • normal conversation: 60-65dB
  • a busy street: 75-85dB
  • lawn mower/heavy traffic: 85dB
  • forklift truck: 90dB
  • hand drill: 98dB
  • heavy truck 20-25 feet away: 95-100dB
  • motorbikes: 100dB
  • movies: some films regularly top 100dB during big action scenes
  • disco/nightclub/car horn: 110dB
  • MP3 player on loud: 112dB
  • chainsaw: 115-120dB
  • rock concert/ambulance siren: 120dB

Precautions to take to reduce the risk of noise-induced hearing loss:

  • Turn down the volume of your television, radio or music. If should be able to have a comfortable conversation with someone who is 6-7 feet away from you.
  • Use headphones that block out or cancel outside noise, rather than turning up the volume.  In-the-ear, ear-bud style headphones are less effective at keeping out background noise.
  • Use the volume limiter when listening to MP3 players. Follow a 60:60 rule for listening to a MP3 player safely, listen to music at 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day. 
  • Use ear protection equipment such as ear muffs or ear plugs when working in a noisy environment.  Don't tolerate loud noise at work.
  • Avoid loud concerts or use ear-protection at loud concerts and at other events where there are high noise levels.
  • Know the symptoms of common causes of hearing loss, such as ear infections, and get prompt treatment for them.
  • Visit your health provider if you or your child are experiencing hearing problems.

The key to healthy hearing is prevention-- know how much loud sound you’re exposed to and avoid loud noises.

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