Ear protection today, hear tomorrow

Noise-induced hearing loss affects 26 million Americans, according to the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, even though it is the only type of hearing loss that is 100 percent preventable.

Story and photos by Erin Starkebaum, NewsNetNebraska

Don’t you just love singing along to the blaring loud music at parties and concerts? Of course, who doesn’t? And don’t you just love being the only person wearing earplugs?

If you answered yes to the first question and no to the last, you might want to reconsider. Because, according to the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 26 million – or 15 percent – of Americans ages 20 to 69 have permanent hearing loss from being exposed to loud noises at work or in leisure activities.

It’s called noise-induced hearing loss, NIHL for short. The sheer force of energy from a noise that is too loud or lasts too long can damage sensitive hair cells located in the cochlea of the inner ear. Hair cells at the front of the cochlea are especially sensitive to high frequencies and are the first to be damaged by loud noises, which can affect a person’s ability to hear 80 percent of normal speech tones, experts say.

Kelly Wacker, audiologist and assistant professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said NIHL is the only form of hearing loss that is 100 percent preventable. Many people, however, don’t even know when they are putting their hearing at risk.

“You’re not invincible,” Wacker said, adding she wants to tell students who drive around with their music so loud it can be heard from five blocks away. “I should just stand at the corner and hand out business cards and say, ‘In 15 years, you’ll see me,’” she said.

So just how serious of a risk is noise-induced hearing loss? Ray Rosenow, president of Cornhusker Hearing Center, said the latest research he has seen puts NIHL at a pandemic proportion.

“It’s pretty hard to escape these days,” Rosenow said. “It’s the young ones that use iPods and go to concerts. They can show damage within a couple of days,” he added.

Rosenow, who is board certified in hearing instrument sciences, fits 700 to 1,000 patients with hearing instruments each year. The majority of those patients, he said, have noise-induced hearing loss. He’s seen NIHL in teens and 20-year-olds as well as in 70- and 80-year-old farmers who have been around loud machinery their whole lives.

Ray Rosenow, president of Cornhusker Hearing Center, shows a graph of what an 88-year-old man’s hearing looks like. It is far below the level of normal hearing and dips even farther in the high frequencies, suggestive of noise-induced hearing loss.

Rosenow was diagnosed with NIHL after being raised in a family of shotgun shooters and began showing signs of hearing loss as early as age 6. It was extremely devastating, Rosenow said, and impacted his grades and attention span.

“While the teacher was talking, I’d be watching clouds out the window,” he said.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, noise-induced hearing loss causes sounds to be muffled or distorted, making it difficult to understand speech.

Sound is measured on a decibel scale. The higher the decibel level of the sound, the greater the risk of permanent hearing loss. The length of time exposed also plays a role in the danger level of the noise. The louder the noise in decibels, the less time it takes to cause permanent hearing loss. If the noise is loud enough, like an explosion, a one-time exposure can do serious damage.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sets a standard on what decibels levels are considered safe and how long a person can be exposed to a sound that is too loud before permanent damage is done.

NIOSH standards say that at 85 decibels, a person can listen for eight hours without risking damage. At 88 decibels, a person can listen for four hours. At 100 decibels, a person can listen for only 15 minutes. By the time the sound is up to 106 decibels, 3.75 minutes of listening is safe.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says these are the safe listening standards.

That’s bad news for 22-year-old Andrew Tool, bass player of the local band A Summer Better Than Yours. Tool has been playing bass and guitar for close to six years and hasn’t always worn hearing protection. After being exposed to loud music for so long, Tool said he has already noticed what he thinks are the effects of NIHL.

“I found myself asking people to repeat themselves more than usual because I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” Tool said.

In the past, he has used Hearos ear filters to bring the decibel level of his music down to levels that can be tolerated for longer times before causing hearing loss.

“They worked great,” he said, “until I lost them.”

To see if Tool’s observations were measurable, Dr. Wacker evaluated his hearing by testing what  Tool could hear in each ear. She also asked him to repeat words to make sure he could hear them all. Wacker classified Tool’s hearing in the normal range, but Tool said he could not hear some words well enough to understand and repeat them.

“Dr. Wacker told me that just because I don’t have hearing loss yet, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Tool said.

Wacker recommended that he wear hearing protection at all times around the loud music. If he doesn’t, he will be committing what Rosenow calls auditory suicide.

“It’s not much different than sticking an ice pick in your eye,” Rosenow said. “You’re basically accomplishing the same thing.”

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