Hearing loss doesn’t only happen at the foot of a concert stage or the runway of an airport. Even everyday sounds, like those heard from a lawn mower or through earbuds, can damage your hearing if they continue for long enough.
But you can’t feel your hearing being damaged, so too often your first sign of hearing loss is a difficulty understanding conversation. Once it’s lost, your hearing can’t come back — the tiny hairs that help you hear can’t regenerate once they’re damaged beyond repair.
Lisa Spiegel, Au.D., CCC-A, a clinical audiologist at Florida Hospital Lake Mary, says you don’t need to wait until you lose hearing to take simple steps to protect your ears.
Normal but loud sounds, such as the whirling of a blender or the roar of a vacuum cleaner, have the capacity to damage hearing if left on for long enough. A more common threat to hearing isn’t noise at all, but music. Spiegel is seeing more and more teenagers who have the hearing of older adults because they’ve listened to music through earbuds on high volume.
“If you enjoy listening to music, you should play it at a lower volume if you want to keep enjoying it,” she says. “If someone else can hear music from your earbuds, it’s too loud.”
Even if hearing loss isn’t reversible, it is preventable and treatable. And while some hearing loss is normal as you age, the problem can be far-reaching, potentially causing isolation, depression and even declining heart health.
It Adds Up
Though it’s possible to damage your hearing from a really loud sound, like a gunshot, more often the damage adds up over time. Just as a few sugary soft drinks won’t give you a cavity, loud noise every now and then probably won’t do much damage.
But sound doesn’t have to be painfully loud to damage your ears.
“The challenge with noise-induced hearing loss is you can’t feel it happening,” Spiegel says. “You don’t know you’ve done any damage until it’s too late.”
They key isn’t just in the loudness of the sound; the duration and frequency can be just as important. A hair dryer for a few minutes may not do much damage, but pointing one at your ear every day for a half hour at a time could.
To limit damage to your ears, consider the noise you tend to hear for a long time. For some people, that’s mowing the lawn. For others it’s power tools or, yes, listening to music.
Losing your ability to hear clearly is about more than needing a hearing aid. Its consequences can spread into your social, emotional and physical health.
Struggling to Hear
The first hearing to go is typically at the high-pitch range, which includes sounds that help you understand conversation and give it meaning.
“The type of hearing we lose first can make it harder to understand people,” Spiegel says. “It can sound as if other people are mumbling.”
And while many people hesitate to get a hearing aid because they worry it will be noticeable, the alternative is more obvious. Untreated hearing loss prevents people from responding in conversations, which too often leads them to withdraw from social situations.
That can create a cascade of effects on your body, mind and social life, which all depend on healthy connections with others. Older adults with untreated hearing loss are also more likely to develop problems with thinking and remembering. One possible cause for this link is the social withdrawal that too often accompanies hearing loss, as loneliness has long been tied to cognitive decline.
Steps You Can Take
Earplugs are some of the most commonly used ways to prevent hearing damage, and they can be effective, Spiegel says. There are also specialized earplugs and other protective equipment that can make a difference, including:
- Musicians earplugs: A more sophisticated twist on the standby, these earplugs can leave complicated melodies intact while making them quieter.
- Hunters earplugs: While hunters and shooters often need to hear, there are earplugs that can block only loud sounds, like a gunshot.
- Foam headphones: Some people listen to music extra loud to drown out other sounds in noisy places like the gym or an airplane. Headphones can muffle other sounds, so you don’t have to listen to music as loudly.
Plain old rest can help, too. If your ears have a “full” feeling or ringing sound after you’ve been exposed to loud noise, give your ears some rest. The tiny hairs in your ear can recover from some damage, but repeated exposure to loud sound can be irreversible.
People who think they may have hearing loss should get their hearing tested, Spiegel says, to see what treatments are available. Hearing aids have become less obtrusive, and younger adults are increasingly willing try them, she says.
The best solution, though, is to prevent damage in the first place.
“As good as hearing aids are, and they’ve gotten better, they can’t replace normal, natural hearing,” Spiegel says.
Florida Hospital’s hearing centers know hearing is a part of your whole life, and their audiologists have decades of experience in preventing and treating hearing loss. If you or a loved one is worried about hearing loss, call 407-303-8080 or visit our website for more information.