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Preventing hearing loss in an era of noise overload

October 18, 2018 | UCI Health
man wearing earplugs while welding

Two hundred years ago, there were no jet planes, no motorcycles, no lawnmowers, no rock concerts and no MP3 players to plug directly into our ears. No one had kitchen blenders or hairdryers, let alone leaf blowers.

Today the assault on our ears comes from all directions, and it’s affecting our hearing.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that about one in three people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 has experienced some hearing loss, and nearly half of people older than age 75 have difficulty hearing. That’s a result of both aging and noise exposure.

Hearing loss becoming a young adult problem

But hearing loss is also beginning to affect young adults, according to a recent analysis by UCI Health ear surgeon and hearing specialist Dr. Harrison Lin and his colleagues in the UCI Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.

“Now one in five people in their 20s is experiencing some hearing loss,” says Lin, an assistant professor of otology, neurotology and skull base surgery. “Our ears have not evolved to handle such trauma.”  

Being bombarded by noise is the problem. Sounds that are too loud, too close or last too long should be avoided, he says.

Unfortunately, too few of us are protecting our hearing, Lin says.

How to protect your hearing 

One-third of people exposed to very loud noise at work don’t wear hearing protection. Two-thirds of people who are exposed to loud noises during recreational activities never protect their ears. And even though a single gunshot can result in permanent hearing loss, fully 21 percent of people shoot guns without shielding their ears.

Lin offers the following tips:

  • Avoid uncomfortably loud situations.
  • Carry and wear ear plugs when in noisy environments.
  • Wear ear muffs and ear plugs in situations where you’ll be exposed to exceedingly loud sounds.
  • When listening to music with ear buds, keep the volume as low as possible.
  • Get your hearing tested.

How loud noises damage your ears 

The ear is a delicately balanced system that is very sensitive to sounds.

“It’s thought that soundwaves of loud noise are too much for the inner ear to handle,” Lin says. “Loud noise alone can destroy the special cells in the inner ear that convert mechanical energy into electricity that stimulates the hearing nerve. Moreover, it can permanently damage the fibers of the hearing nerve.”

Loud noises can result in immediate hearing loss, but the damage more frequently occurs over time. People may not even be aware that their hearing is becoming impaired.

Recognizing when you have hearing loss

“The first signs of damage from noise are often hearing loss or tinnitus, which is a ringing or some other sound perceived in the ear when there is not an external source,” Lin says. “Sometimes hearing loss manifests itself as difficulty in understanding conversation in noisy situations, like at a restaurant. Or it can be a feeling of fullness in the ear.”

Lin recommends that anyone who may be experiencing hearing loss or having difficulty understanding speech should get a hearing test and see an ear specialist. There are a number of possible treatments, depending on the type and severity of the problem.

Treating hearing loss without surgery

Hearing aids are great options for most people with mild to moderate hearing loss, Lin says. Indeed, the NIH notes that nearly 29 million adults in the country could benefit from using hearing aids.

Some people report that hearing aids can amplify ambient noise, making it difficult to distinguish conversations in group settings.

However, Lin says, “the vast majority of people with mild to moderate hearing loss who wear high-quality hearing aids well-programmed to match their hearing loss as measured in an audiogram will grow to very much appreciate and depend on their hearing aids.”

Surgical treatments for hearing loss

If the hearing loss is severe, there are outpatient surgical options with very high success rates.

“One of the most common surgeries we perform is cochlear implantation,” Lin says.

“In this short and safe outpatient surgery, we implant a device that converts digitally coded sounds into electrical impulses that stimulate the hearing nerve. With this, we are routinely able to restore excellent hearing to people with severe to profound hearing loss.”

Cochlear implants are approved for use in children as young as 12 months of age who were born with hearing loss as well as for adults into their 90s, so long as the hearing loss is severe enough to meet established criteria, Lin says.  If the criteria are met, these procedures are usually covered by insurance.

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