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Prevention of Noise-induced Hearing Loss

Oct 24, 2018 06:00AM ● By MED Magazine

By Mandy Rounseville-Norgaard

Hearing loss caused by noise can occur in people of any age. It may happen suddenly or gradually. How soon it happens,  how long your are in the noise and depending on the source, and intensity of the noise will affect how much damage can be done.

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is actually one of the most common forms of hearing loss. NIHL can be immediate or it can take a long time to be noticeable. It can be temporary or permanent, and it can affect one ear or both ears.

Even if you can’t tell that you are damaging your hearing, you could have trouble hearing in the future, such as not being able to understand other people when they talk, especially on the phone or in a noisy room. Regardless of how it might affect you, one thing is certain: noise-induced hearing loss is something you can prevent; NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable.

Activities that may put you — or your patients — at risk for noise-induced hearing loss include:

  • On-the-job (occupational) noise is one of the most common sources of harmful noise. That's mainly because you are around it all day for years. For instance, if you work in construction or in a factory, or you are in the military, you may be around harmful noise for several hours each day.

  • A sudden, extremely loud sound, such as an explosion, a gunshot, or a firecracker close to the ear, can damage any of the structures in the ear. When this happens, it can cause immediate, severe, and often permanent hearing loss. This type of injury often requires medical attention right away.

  • Loud sounds (like a rock concert) can cause a temporary ringing and hearing loss. Sounds may also seem muffled. These effects usually don't last more than a few hours. But they may sometimes last several days or weeks.

  • Repeated, frequent exposure to loud or moderately loud sounds over a long period of time (often years) can cause permanent hearing loss. But this kind of hearing loss can almost always be prevented. These sounds include recreation and daily activities such as:

    • High-volume music.

    • The noise of power tools, like chainsaws or electric drills.

    • The noise from lawn mowers, household appliances (such as blenders and vacuum cleaners), and vehicles (such as snowmobiles and motorcycles).

Since we live in the Midwest, hunting season is in full swing.  The most common cause of noise-induced hearing loss in this area is hunting or target shooting. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that men between the ages of 48 and 92 who hunted on a regular basis were much more likely to experience high-frequency hearing loss, and that the risk of hearing loss increased by 7 percent for every 5 years a man had been hunting.  

Hunters who don’t use hearing protection say it is because they feel like earmuffs or earplugs interfere with the noise they actually want to hear, such as the rustling of a deer or the flapping of ducks wings. In other words, they don’t wear hearing protection because they are afraid of missing something important. The good new is, there is an option for hunters to prevent hearing loss and still enjoy their favorite activity.

The way to prevent any noise-induced hearing loss is to use hearing protection. There are two main types of hearing protection available, and which one you choose is a matter of preference.

The first is passive noise protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs. These work by muffling noise and reducing the decibel level that is able to reach the inner ears. For noise that exceeds 105 dB, such as gunshots, wearing earmuffs and earplugs together is the best bet. Both earmuffs and earplugs come with a noise reduction rating, or NRR; obviously higher is better. Some hunters, however, dislike the fact that passive hearing protection muffles not only the gunshots, but also sounds they want to hear, such as conversation with fellow hunters or the sounds of approaching animals.

The alternative is active hearing protection, also known as electronic hearing protection, which allows hunters the best of both worlds. Through a process called destructive interference, which is basically countering an incoming sound wave with an inverse sound wave produced by the headphones, the harmful noise is subdued. These high tech earmuffs come in a range of price points have the advantage of enhancing environmental sounds while at the same time decreasing the dangerous, high decibel sounds. The Walker Game Ear, for example, blocks any noise above 85 decibels but enhances regular sounds. And built in microphones in these devices even allow a hunter to pinpoint which direction a sound is coming from.

The good news is that if you protect your hearing now, you’ll be able to enjoy those sounds of nature for years to come.

 Mandy Rounseville-Norgaard, AuD, practices audiology at Sioux falls Audiology Associates

Learn more about noise-induced hearing loss and see a list of activities that increase the risk for you and your patients.