Preventing Hearing Damage and Coping with Hearing Loss in a Noisy World

The world is getting louder, and it’s not doing our hearing any favours. What you need to know about hearing loss

Credit: Flickr / Ulli©graphics

Listening to MP3 players for hours on end can raise your risk for hearing loss

It’s no wonder hearing loss is on the rise. The world is getting louder and the noise is often piped right into our ears via Bluetooth headsets and iPod ear buds

According to Statistics Canada, more than one million Canadians suffer from hearing problems – and it’s not just older demographics. Hearing loss can be attributed to natural disease and aging, but also to external factors, which means hearing damage can be preventable.

Noise-induced Hearing Loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise and the damage is often permanent. The extent of this type of hearing damage depends on the intensity of the noise and the length of exposure. Its effects could be a temporary ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, but will lead to permanent damage if prolonged, repeated exposure is sustained.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed an increase in hearing loss to 19.5% from 15% between the mid-1980s to 2006.

While no solid correlations were drawn, it’s easy to speculate as to the causes, says Dr. Victoria Lee, a Doctor of Audiology (Au. D.) at the Auditory Outreach Program with the Provincial Resource Centre in BC.

“Due to a much longer battery life and an almost endless supply of songs that can be played on MP3 players (compared to Walkmans of the past), consumers are able to listen to music for much more extended periods of time, and this can raise the risk for hearing loss. Also, most ear buds don’t block out background noise, so users tend to increase the volume whenever they’re in noisy environments… and the physical intensity of the sound can be sufficient to cause hearing loss.”  

Types of Hearing Loss

Because there are several different types of hearing loss, it’s important to get tested at a qualified hearing centre as soon as symptoms appear.

Dr. Victoria Lee, an audiologist with the Auditory Outreach Program with the Provincial Resource Centre in BC, says, “everyone, regardless of age, should have their hearing tested to obtain a baseline from which they can compare their hearing in the future.”

Sensorineural Hearing Problems

  • The most common type of hearing impairment. This accounts for approximately 90% of hearing problems experienced.
  • Happens when damage is sustained in the inner ear (cochlea)/auditory nerve and is most likely permanent.
  • Usually occurs as a result of aging, head trauma or repeated exposure to loud noise.

Conductive Hearing Problems

  • This is usually caused by a perforated eardrum, infection or wax/fluid buildup in the middle or outer ear.
  • Most likely temporary and easily treatable.

Mixed Hearing Problems

  • This is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss.
  • Both inner ear and middle/outer ear are affected.

How to Prevent Hearing Damage

According to the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists (CASLPA), noise-induced hearing loss is 99% preventable if proper hearing protection is used.

There are three main types of ear protectors:

  1. Ear muffs – These fit over the ears and provide great protection without requiring a customized fit.
  2. Non-custom protectors (e.g.: foam earplugs) – These are much more discreet than ear muffs, but offer less robust protection. Their effectiveness is dependent on how well they are inserted into the ear canal.
  3. Custom earplugs – These offer very good protection but will require an appointment with an audiologist to make a custom earmold impression.

“Personally,” Dr. Lee advises, “for mowing the lawn or vacuuming, I prefer earmuffs. When blow drying my hair, I wear earplugs – I’ve seen many hair stylists with hearing loss. I always take along custom hearing protectors wherever I go, especially on airplane rides.”

How to Treat Hearing Loss

Left untreated, hearing loss can have detrimental effects, including speech and language impairments, employment challenges and reduced household income.

There are a variety of solutions that can help assist someone who is hard of hearing:

  • Digital hearing aids – These are usually an integral part of aural rehabilitation and help people readjust to processing a fuller spectrum of sound.
  • Assistive listening devices – These may be used with or without hearing aids and help people in specific situations such as using the telephone or listening to the TV.
  • Cochlear implants – Some people who are profoundly hard of hearing and who don’t benefit from hearing aids may be candidates for this type of surgery.