Adrienne Ammirati, Audiology Extern
Doctoral Candidate in Audiology, CUNY Graduate Center
Are You At Risk?
There is no denying that our world is getting louder. Nearly everyone has been in a situation where the individual next to you is listening to their music so loudly that you feel as though you are the one wearing the headphones. If you cannot relate to this, then perhaps you are the person in question.
According to a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), millions of adolescents and young adults are at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased exposure to damaging sound levels through the use of personal listening devices . With the increased accessibility of smartphones/personal listening devices, nearly everyone has endless access to media right at their fingertips. In Europe, may countries have passed legislation which mandate a maximum sound output level for products sold in an effort to protect the auditory health of consumers. Presently, the United States has yet to adopt such regulations despite the fact that studies have shown that smartphones, including Apple Inc. products, are capable of reaching alarmingly high maximum sound output levels of roughly 100-115dB . It is therefore not surprising that the incidence of hearing loss among United States adolescents has increased by 5% over the last 30 years . According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), exposure to a sound with an intensity level of 100dBA is only safe for a duration of 15 minutes. An exposure of longer than 15 minutes will put a listener at risk of noise induced hearing loss.
What Is Noise Induced Hearing Loss?
As the name suggests, noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) refers to permanent hearing loss caused by the ear’s exposure to loud sounds. Within the inner most part of your ear lies the coveted cochlea. This tiny little organ, only 9 mm in diameter, is equipped with thousands of tiny hair cells that act as sensory receptors to encode and transmit the acoustic signals we hear into electrical stimuli that travel via the auditory nerve to the brain for decoding and processing. When loud sounds are introduced into the cochlea, the mechanisms within can act with damaging force. The factors determining the severity of this force are the intensity, frequency, duration, and temporal pattern of the incoming sound. Unfortunately, once this damage is done the effects cannot be reversed. This can lead to significant listening and communication difficulties.
Noise induced hearing loss is often categorized as either occupational having to do with exposure as the result on one’s work environment, or recreational having to do with enjoyment activities, in nature. While occupational noise damage is often the result of repeated exposure to high noise levels over a prolonged duration, recreational noise damage can result from a single, transient exposure to dangerously high sound levels that result in immediate acoustic trauma. Unfortunately, hearing loss is not the only side effect of these damaging sounds. Many individuals with noise induced hearing loss also suffer from tinnitus, or the perception of ringing, hissing, or buzzing in the ear that cannot be attributed to an outside source. Depending on its perceptual severity, tinnitus can have a profound impact on an individual’s quality of life. Those suffering with bothersome tinnitus often report disruptions in their sleep, depression, mental and physical fatigue, stress, irritability, and anxiety.
What to Do About It?
The fortunate thing about noise induced hearing loss is that it is often preventable. Simply modifying one’s behavior through the adoption of safe listening habits and/or by utilizing appropriate hearing protection when in loud environments can have a huge impact on an individual’s hearing heath.
An article published in The Hearing Review revisited the “60-60” rule of thumb which was developed in the 1970’s during the age of cassette tape players . The “60-60 Rule” suggested that a listener should not exceed 60% of the maximum volume for 60 minutes or less per day. Author Dr. Brian Fligor explains that although many personal listening devices found today have maximum output levels less than that of traditional cassette players. These new technologies provide the listener with seemingly endless hours of entertainment, thereby increasing the risk of noise damage as the result of prolonged exposure. In lieu of this, Dr. Fligor suggests that listeners should adopt the “80-90 Rule” by limiting the volume control to 80% of the maximum and listening to their devices for no more than 90 minutes a day. The unfortunate truth is that according to a 2010 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between the ages of 8 and 18 years old devote, on average, 7 hours and 38 minutes a day listening to entertainment media via headphones . Additionally, a study conducted by Fligor, Levey & Levey (2014) determined that the average listening levels for adults within the New York City area via personal listening devices was 94.1 dBA (61.9%) . Unsafe listening habits such a this can result in the premature onset of completely avoidable recreational noise induced hearing loss.
For individuals who enjoy attending loud entertainment activities such as musical concerts, nightclubs, and even some bars, it is recommended that they utilize appropriate and effective hearing protection when in these environments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average entertainment venue, including concerts and nightclubs, can reach levels of around 105-110 decibels. Referencing the above figure, at noise levels that high the listener has roughly 3 minutes of safe listening time before risking permanent auditory damage. Though these numbers may seem menacing, the use of appropriately fit hearing protection can drastically reduce your risk of noise induced hearing loss.
In conclusion, if you or someone you love, is believed to be at risk for noise induced hearing loss, it is advised that you make an appointment to see your local otolaryngologist (ENT) and audiologist. Together, these professionals can help to assess the severity of hearing loss and provide the appropriate recommendations to promote better hearing healthcare.
- World Health Organization (WHO). (2015). Make Listening Safe. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015. pp. 1–8. https://www.who.int/pbd/deafness/activities/MLS_Brochure_English_lowres_for_web.pdf
- Shargorodsky, J., Curhan, S.G., Curhan, G .C., & Eavey, R. (2010) Change in prevalence of hearing loss in US Adolescents. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 304 (7): 772-778.
- Wen. P. (2009). iHuh? The Boston Globe. Retrieved from: http://archive.boston. com/news/health/articles/2009/05/18/ihuh/?page=2
- Fligor B. Recreational noise and its potential risk to hearing. Hearing Review. 2010;17(5):48-55.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). What Noises Cause Hearing Loss. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/what_noises_cause_hearing_loss.html
- Rideout, V.J., Foehr, U.G., Roberts, D.F. (2010). Generation M^2: Media in the lives of 8-to 18- year-olds. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.kff.org/other/event/generation-m2-media-in-the-lives-of/
- Fligor. B.J., Levey. S. & Levey, T. (2014). Cultural and Demographic Factors Influencing Noise Exposure Estimates From Use of Portable Listening Devices in an Urban Environment. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 57(15) 35-47. doi:10.1044/2014_JSLHR-H-12-0420