Hearing loss is a common health concern for many people, but fortunately it isn't inevitable.
According to the Hearing Health Foundation, about one-third of permanent hearing loss cases could be prevented with proper hearing protection, increased awareness and small changes in habits.
Preventable types of hearing loss
Protecting your ears from unsafe levels of noise and a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in preventing hearing loss. The main preventable types of hearing loss include:
Let's take a look at these preventable causes of hearing loss and how you can protect your hearing.
Preventing unsafe noise exposure
One of most preventable sources of hearing loss is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) due to unsafe levels of noise exposure. Most people develop NIHL either from their job or their hobbies.
There are two main factors that contribute to NIHL: the sound level (intensity) and how long one is exposed to the noise (duration).
In other words, it is the combination of higher sound levels and how long you are exposed to it. Sometimes this is called the "noise exposure dose.”
If you exceed 100% of the dose often enough, there is the potential for damage to your hearing resulting in permanent hearing loss, but not immediately.
An invisible problem
Unfortunately, a damaging level and dose of noise or music exposure is not painful and is rarely noticed — its effects are invisible, at least in the short term. The effects may not be noticed for many years, when the damage is already done.
To make matters worse, a potentially damaging sound level (measured in decibels or dB) is just around 85 dB or higher. To put that in perspective, 85 dB is roughly the volume level of busy city traffic. Unfortunately, many workplaces regularly expose workers to sounds that are 85 dB or greater, which will eventually cause some measurable hearing loss. Likewise, many people engage in hobbies that are much louder than this—such as attending live music shows without hearing protection, riding motorcycles or shooting firearms.
How do you know if loud is too loud? Numerous smartphone and smartwatch apps can measure your dose of loud listening, one free example is the Sound Level Meter app from the U.S.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Some apps can even alert you when you're in an environment noisy enough to damage your hearing.
Headphones and hearing loss
Headphones and earbuds are not in and of themselves harmful to your hearing—it's how loud you crank up the sound. At home, this may not be an issue, if there is little background noise. But with portability comes noisy environments.
In the quiet of your home, a comfortable listening level may be volume 3 out of 10, but while walking next to a construction site or listening on noisy public transit, this same comfortable volume may be 6 out of 10 and may be potentially damaging. In both cases the music was the same “loudness” but while listening in a noisier place, the “sound level” was much higher and potentially damaging.
How do I know if I've damaged my hearing?
The most important rule of thumb: If a situation feels too loud, it probably is. Here are some other common signs of harmful noise exposure:
Even though you might have experienced these symptoms temporarily in the past, your hearing may not always bounce back, leaving you with a permanent hearing problem.
Preventing hearing loss from medications
More than 200 different drugs are known to cause hearing loss or tinnitus as a side effect, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. They include certain chemotherapy drugs, common pain medications like aspirin, certain antibiotics (especially those in the "aminoglycosides" class) and some diuretics.
There are certain factors that increase one's risk of drug-induced hearing loss:
What can you do? Five tips
1. Wear hearing protection
First and foremost, wearing hearing protection is the number one healthy habit that can reduce your risk of hearing loss. There are several types of hearing protection available, from low-cost, low-tech to high-tech, high-end noise cancellation devices.
Earmuffs or noise-cancelling over-the-ear headphones protect your ears by being placed completely over the ear and creating a seal, lowering noise levels by 15 to 30 db. They come in wired and wireless forms and can be light-weight for prolonged wear. Earmuffs can be combined with earplugs and worn together for ultimate noise protection.
Earplugs are placed in the ear canal and lower noise levels by 15 to 30 db. They come in disposable or reusable forms and are made from acoustically specialized material to prevent damaging noise, yet are sophisticated enough to let in important sounds such as those from doorbells, phones, and alarm clocks. Earplugs can be customized to your unique ear, which provides better comfort and ease in care and maintenance. Customized earplugs are not only more comfortable but made from higher quality materials that will last longer.
Hearing loss prevention for musicians
For musicians and people who like to go to concerts, there is a special type of hearing protection that treats all of the sound of music equally, thereby maintaining the balance and enjoyment of music. Various manufacturers offer musicians’ earplugs and they have been available since the late 1980s.
Musicians’ earplugs offer roughly 15 dB of hearing protection and this is the same protection for the bass notes, the mid-range notes, and the treble notes.
2. Be mindful of medication side effects
In some cases, exposure to the drugs mentioned above cannot be prevented—they are life-saving and worth the risk of hearing loss or tinnitus. However, known ototoxic drugs should be avoided when a safer, effective alternative is available, researchers note. Anytime you take a new medication and experience changes in your hearing, contact your doctor ASAP.
3. Manage your blood pressure and heart health
Both heart disease and diabetes increase your risk of hearing loss. That's because they impact proper blood flow to the ears, which is vital for healthy hearing. Keeping your blood pressure under control, taking your medications properly, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet will go a long way in this regard. Likewise, keeping your stress levels under control are important, too.
4. Quit smoking
Smoking damages your vascular system, which in turn affects your hearing. If the ears don't have a healthy supply of oxygen-rich blood, they are more easily damaged.
5. Get a hearing test
It is possible to prevent some causes of hearing loss and being proactive about your hearing health is where it starts.
Getting a baseline hearing test is the first step. This allows you to track your hearing over time, even if you haven't already experienced symptoms of hearing loss.
If your hearing test indicates a form of hearing loss, you can start to take action to prevent it from getting worse and treat it.
Your hearing care professional will review the results with you and counsel you on better hearing health. Whether that includes hearing aids, alternative treatment options or preventive strategies, you are on your way to a better quality of life.
If you work in a noisy place or participate in a noisy pastime and are concerned about your hearing, or if you suspect you may already have hearing loss, be sure to visit our directory to find a hearing aid clinic near you to find a dedicated hearing healthcare professional near you.