Hearing Safety: Protecting Your Ears

It’s time to start a better conversation about hearing, say Geisinger otolaryngologist William Azeredo, MD, and his colleague, audiologist Jared Owens, AuD.

“Parents tell you not to stare at the sun and to wear a bike helmet, but they don’t tell you to wear ear protection at a Who concert,” says Dr. Azeredo.

Adds Dr. Owens, “A lot of my patients say, ‘If only I’d known…’”

So listen up to a few things they wish all their patients knew.

When to cover your ears

Protect against noises above about 80 decibels. That means anything as loud as or louder than a lawn mower.

A sound that makes your ears ring or causes short-term hearing loss has done some long-term damage.

So keep your guard up. For example, if you take off your hearing protection at a shooting range and someone fires a gun, your ears take the hit.

We’re getting better at work — but worse at play

Workplaces are doing more to protect employees’ hearing. But play can damage our ears.

One culprit? Earbuds, which funnel sound directly into the ear canal.

Unlike headsets that sit outside the ear, earbuds “create a seal, and there’s no way for the sound to escape,” says Dr. Owens. “Parents, if you can hear the music your kids are listening to, it’s too loud.”

Hearing protection is more than just ear plugs

Lots of ear plugs will do a decent job, screening out up to about 25 decibels. Just read the packaging to see how much sound is being blocked.

Meanwhile, technology has come a long way. For example, at a concert, some protection mutes bass more than higher-pitched sounds for a better experience. And certain hunting gear only muzzles sound when a gun is fired.

Trust your friends and family

If people tell you they think you’re not hearing well, get screened.

Some patients believe their hearing is fine because conversations are still loud enough. They just can’t make out all the words. That’s still evidence of damage to the ear’s cochlea, which helps with clarity.

“If you’re asking what people are saying, or responding in ways that are kind of funny because you’re not hearing words correctly, that indicates hearing loss,” says Dr. Azeredo.

All about screenings

Your family doctor can perform a fairly reliable hearing screening. But an audiogram by a specialist is much more involved and accurate.

“If another test shows loss, come in for a more formal hearing test,” says Dr. Owens. Then you’re on the providers’ radar and more likely to get the help you need if loss progresses.

Ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, is “a canary in the coal mine” that should also prompt you to get checked, adds Dr. Azeredo. “The vast majority of times, tinnitus is a product of hearing loss.”

Changes in one ear? See a specialist

Your ears are a team. So if only one develops a problem, like tinnitus or a pulsing sound, see a specialist as soon as possible. “Those symptoms warrant evaluation,” says Dr. Azeredo.

Use available resources

Seek out information like how loud your model of lawn mower is, says Dr. Owens.

“A quick search can show you sounds that are dangerous. Some apps will also evaluate decibels right where you are.”

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