asian woman leaning against a glass building with headphones closed eyes

Protecting Your Hearing in a Noisy World

Besides being amazing musicians and entertainers, what do Grimes, Neil Young, Ozzy Osbourne, and Will.i.am all have in common? If you said hearing loss or tinnitus you’re right. 

These popular musicians have hearing loss from years of repeated exposure to too much sound.  You don’t have to be a heavy metal musician for hearing loss to occur, classical musicians are also at great risk for damaging their hearing. We are all surrounded by a lot of noise, not just people who work in naturally noisy jobs like baggage handlers at airports, road crews, carpenters, and landscapers, but even people who care for children all day. 

Where is all this noise coming from?

How loud a sound is, its intensity is measured in decibels (dB) – named in honor of Alexander Graham Bell. The higher the decibels plus the length of time you are exposed, the more danger of damage to your hearing. 

Absolute silence is numbered as -9dB, and 0dB is the quietest sound a person with healthy hearing can detect above that. An average conversation is around 60dB, and you will have to raise your voice to be heard when the sound around you gets to above 87dB. Anything above 85dB for long periods of time could cause hearing damage. 

This list will give you an idea of the decibels you are encountering in daily life:

30 a soft whisper

40 a quiet residential area

50 rainfall

60 – 85 a vacuum cleaner

65 – 80 an alarm clock

60 – 95 a hair dryer

70 – 85 noisy coffee shop/restaurant 

85 heavy traffic

90 – 115 a subway

110 a baby crying

110 a leaf blower

110 -120 a rock concert

117 a stadium football game

120 a chain saw, or hammer on a nail

140 an airplane taking off

150 a firecracker

157 a balloon pop

162 fireworks (at 3 feet)

A special note about earbuds and AirPods, as they are increasingly popular, particularly with young people. If they are used in crowded spaces, urban settings, or while traveling on public transport, the temptation is to turn up the volume to better hear music or a podcast. Some have a noise-canceling feature which does help. The World Health Organization warns that a billion people could be at risk for hearing loss from the misuse of these devices. 

What’s Happening Inside Your Ears?

Where you live, how you travel, your job, hobbies, and recreation all contribute to the assault on the delicate mechanisms that are your ears. Noise-induced hearing loss results from damage to the fine “hairs” and cells inside the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that converts vibrations into electrical impulses. 

Even one very loud incident, like an explosion, can permanently damage these cells. The more common loss comes over time as these cells are over-stressed. In addition to cochlear harm, animal studies have shown that even relatively moderate amounts of noise exposure can cause damage to the auditory nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain.

The Drum Line

When my son was in high school, he was on the drumline, and as a proud mama, I can say they were so good he marched in the Macy’s Day Parade. As a band mom, you guessed it, I was also that person who insisted that the drummers have earplugs and hearing protection. Oh yeah, my son was embarrassed, but soft earplugs were the least we could do to protect their hearing. 

Hearing Aids 

Even those who take good care of their hearing do start to notice they are losing certain ranges, some voices are harder to hear than others, as they age. A trip to the audiologist will include a test in a soundproof room wearing headphones to determine the threshold at which the person can hear in complete quiet.

Today’s hearing aids are digital, battery-powered, and use the same basic components of a tiny microphone and an amplifier that converts the incoming sound into digital code. A computer chip adjusts the sound based on your hearing loss and converts it back into sound waves delivered to your ears through small receivers. Many people who rely on hearing aids find their tiny parts hard to manage, they sometimes cause feedback, or just don’t seem to help as much as they should. Here are two reasons why:

Not Wearing Them Enough

Specialists say this is probably the most common reason hearing aids don’t work. Research tells us that it takes about 6 months for our brain to adjust to this new way of hearing –through amplification. But many people only wear them once a week for church, to appointments, or to play cards with friends. Only wearing them a few hours a day is not enough; they should be worn eight hours every day to get the full benefit. 

Improper Volume Settings

Hearing aid settings do need periodic adjusting for loud, average, and soft sounds. As your hearing capabilities change, your hearing should be retested and their settings reset. You also might need to go over how to adjust them for the best results in different environments.

A Quiet Year

Yes, it has been a lot quieter in the world, and we haven’t been to any rock concerts. But the world is coming back to life, and to noise. When you do go to that first loud event, bring a pair of good spongy earplugs, and remember to wear ear protection when you do any project with powered equipment.

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