Whether it's your favorite song or the voice of your significant other, hearing is essential to how we interact with the world around us. For all of their incredible utility, though, the truth is that our ears actually comprise a fairly delicate system. What are some of the causes of hearing loss? And what can you do to prevent them?
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, prolonged exposure to loud noises -- a totally preventable issue in most cases -- is regrettably the primary cause of hearing loss among adults and teenagers. These damaging noises come from a variety of sources, such as mechanical equipment at work or a TV turned all the way up. Many experts feel that the increased prevalence of earbuds is one of the primary causes of hearing loss, particularly for adolescents through younger adults. While these devices in and of themselves don't physically harm the ear, people tend to simply play music too loudly through them, destroying the hair cells that detect sounds. Once these hairs are killed off, they cannot be restored.
Of course, music channeled through earbuds is not the only source of loud noise we frequently encounter. The general recommendation from the U.S Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is that we should limit our exposure to any noise over 85 decibels (roughly equivalent to a microwave's beep), which the human ear can safely tolerate for about eight hours. As the volume increases, your ear's tolerance decreases -- and this shift happens rapidly. With a sound of just nine decibels more (94 decibels), you should keep your exposure to just one hour to protect your hearing. When you consider the fact that many people listen to their music at volumes comparable to a chainsaw -- which the ears should only deal with for about four minutes -- the effect of earbud use becomes clear.
If you are commonly exposed to loud noises in your work environment, what can you do? Remember to use some form of hearing protection, whether small earplugs or larger, more substantial earmuffs, to prevent the volume from rising beyond your level of tolerance. For those whose chief exposure to dangerous volumes is music, though, an interesting fix might be the switch to higher-quality, noise-canceling headphones. Because these both block outside noises and prevent the music from spilling out, you'll likely find that you can keep them at a lower volume while getting the same enjoyment.
Some causes of hearing loss are less preventable. Various health conditions -- such as otosclerosis, Ménière's disease, autoimmune diseases, tumors, and head injuries -- can all cause hearing loss. Luckily, many of these conditions are treatable through surgery or medication. If you experience a sudden loss or change in your hearing (such as a ringing in your ears), however, speak with your doctor as soon as possible.
Another element to be aware of: A few medications, known as ototoxic medications, can cause hearing loss in some patients. These include some antibiotics, aspirin, diuretics, and some drugs used along with chemotherapy. Again, if you are taking these medications and experience a change in your hearing, get in touch with your doctor.
It only takes a little adjustment to treat your ears in a kinder, less damaging fashion. Next time you're ready to rock out to your favorite tunes on the commute home, keep this discussion in mind and turn the volume down. It's not worth potential hearing loss down the road!