Before your kids go out to a concert or a dance at school, you might talk with them about their behavior. But have you also thought about having a heart-to-heart about protecting their hearing? The tricky thing about hearing loss is that you may not notice it until the damage has already been done.
Kids’ ears contend with loud music from headphones and earbuds, power mowers, workshop tools, motorcycles, ambulance sirens, concerts, sporting events—and have you ventured into a school cafeteria recently? Let’s face it, it’s a noisy planet we live on.
Of course, some noises are good—like the chirping of robins in the morning or of crickets at night. Or when a child gets a case of the giggles, when your all-time favorite song plays on the radio or when a good friend calls your name.
But sounds that are too loud and that last for too long are unhealthy. In fact, they can damage your hearing and keep you from hearing the good sounds.
Loud sounds can damage tiny sensory cells in your inner ear called hair cells. Hair cells actually have nothing to do with hair. They get their name from the bristly structures that stand straight up from their tops, like a bad haircut. Hair cells are very important to your hearing. Once they’re damaged, there’s no way to grow them back.
Hearing loss that’s caused by exposure to too much noise is called noise-induced hearing loss. People with noise-induced hearing loss have trouble detecting high-pitched sounds—such as certain speech sounds or the voices of women and children. Many also have tinnitus, a disorder that causes a continuous ringing, roaring or clicking in the ears.
Even a small loss of hearing can diminish a child’s quality of life forever. The ability to hear well helps children succeed in school, in sports and other activities, and in their personal relationships. As adults, hearing loss may affect some of their job opportunities. That’s why it’s so important to protect hearing at a young age.
“The good news is that there are simple steps that everyone can take to protect their hearing from potentially damaging sounds,” says Dr. James F. Battey, Jr., director of NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
Sound is measured in units called decibels. On the decibel scale, an increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more intense, or powerful. To your ears, it sounds twice as loud. The softest sound healthy ears can hear is 0 decibels—near total silence. By comparison, a whisper measures 30 decibels, and normal conversation measures 60 decibels. A rocket launching into space is more than 180 decibels.
Researchers who study hearing loss in the workplace have found that someone who’s exposed to noise levels at 85 dB or higher for a prolonged period of time is at risk for hearing loss. For this reason, these workers are required to wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or earmuffs, while they’re on the job. Many devices that children use today have noise levels much higher than 85 dB. For example, an MP3 player at maximum level is roughly 105 dB. That’s 100 times more intense than 85 dB!
Although we often think of rural areas as being quieter than the city, people who live there are especially at risk for hearing loss, most likely due to exposure to farm machinery and other noises. In a study of people between ages 8 and 92 from one rural Iowa county, 99% were found to have significant hearing loss.
Many young people, however, aren’t even aware of noise-induced hearing loss or how they can prevent it. In a survey conducted on the MTV Web site, 61% of the teens and young adults who responded had experienced tinnitus or hearing impairment after concerts. However, only 16% of them reported that they had heard, read or seen any information on noise-induced hearing loss. Only 14% of them had used earplugs.
Even when young people understand the risk of noise-induced hearing loss, they don’t always follow through by adopting habits to protect their hearing. One study of college students found that even though most knew about noise-induced hearing loss, nearly 3 in 4 had never worn hearing protection.
Just as children need to develop healthy eating habits to avoid excess weight, they also need to learn about the causes and prevention of noise-induced hearing loss early on, so that healthy hearing habits become a natural choice. These habits are simple, such as turning down the volume on a portable media player or wearing earplugs at a concert.
To help, NIDCD has launched a new educational campaign called It’s a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing. It’s focused on “tweens”—kids ages 8 to 12—and their parents, along with teachers, coaches, scout leaders, health care professionals and other adults who work with this age group.
According to the campaign’s coordinators, tweens are at a great age—they’re no longer little children, and they are beginning to develop a sense of who they are and what they like to do. Reaching them at this age, while they’re forming attitudes and habits related to their health, will help them prevent hearing problems later in life.
So teach them to turn down the volume on music players and video games, and to walk away from a loud sound. Set an example and teach them to wear hearing protection like earplugs when they’re near loud sounds for a long time.
Make sure to choose hearing protectors that suit your child’s activities. For example, special musicians’ earplugs are available so your child can play an instrument loudly and clearly but hear the music at a softer level. There also are hearing protectors designed specifically for hunting or shooting sports. Hearing protectors are available from many pharmacies, sporting good stores, hardware stores and online vendors.
“Our goal through this campaign is to increase awareness among parents and children so that it will become second nature to use protective hearing techniques when they’re exposed to loud noise, just like it’s become second nature to wear sunscreen when you’re at the beach or to snap on a helmet when you go biking,” Battey says.
Protect your children’s hearing. They’ll thank you for it later.
Threats to Hearing
Know which noises can cause hearing damage. Wear ear plugs or get some distance between yourself and noises at these levels:
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