May is Better Hearing & Speech Month (BHSM), a time when the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) spreads awareness of communication disorders—like hearing loss—and the life-altering treatments that are available for them.
This year, ASHA has chosen the theme “Connecting People” for BHSM. At its core, this is what hearing loss treatment is all about: ensuring that we maintain our connections to the people in our lives, and maybe even make some new connections!
But the first step toward treatment is connecting with the professionals who can help! People who are trained as audiologists, hearing care professionals, speech-language pathologists, otolaryngologists, and more can help us to maintain our best hearing health, no matter what stage we’re at with it.
Over the course of the month, ASHA is releasing informational materials related to the roles that audiologists and other professionals have in schools, medical facilities, workplaces and at home. Communication disorders can be especially problematic because they can make it more difficult even to ask for assistance—that’s why it’s important that professionals working to treat them are embedded in the places we spend our time, and why it’s important to spread awareness more broadly about the treatment and prevention of hearing loss.
Modern life is noisy, and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)—after declining in the first decade or so of the 21st century—is on the rise again. About 10% of millennials have NIHL, and about 17% of Gen-Z does. This is concerning, especially since Gen-Z is the younger of the two generations.
One persistent misconception about NIHL is that sound has to be painful to cause it. This is not the case! Sounds that we might not even find uncomfortable can cause NIHL after a sufficient period of exposure. At 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted), it takes about 8 hours for hearing loss to set in. 85 dBA is about the sound produced by a gas-powered lawn mower, and many household appliances exceed this level.
For every additional 3 dBA, the time it takes for sound to cause hearing loss is cut in half. By 100 dBA (the sound level at the average high school dance), it only takes about 15 minutes to cause NIHL. At the point that sound becomes painful, we might have some degree of hearing damage immediately.
Is NIHL Genetic?
Some people appear to be more susceptible to NIHL than others. In fact, at the Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss, researchers have noted that there appears to be a genetic component involved in every type of hearing loss. We may sometimes hear stories about people who have not experienced problematic hearing loss despite a lifetime of noise exposure.
But this is rolling a dice! We don’t know how susceptible we are to NIHL until we have it, and by that time it is too late. NIHL is completely preventable, but unfortunately incurable. The best thing we can do for our hearing health is to avoid loud sound when possible, and protect our hearing whenever we are exposed.
How to Protect Our Hearing
Keep these tips in mind in order to avoid NIHL during your favorite activities:
- Wear Protection – Earplugs, earmuffs, or both should be worn whenever you are engaged in a loud activity. The amount of protection you wear should be enough to reduce the noise to less than 85 dBA. Especially when handling firearms, it’s important to wear both earplugs and earmuffs. Custom hearing protection is available for those who regularly engage in loud activities, including musicians, who need to hear clearly but quietly.
- Measure the Sound – You can download an SPL (sound pressure level) meter app, or purchase a dedicated device. This can help you learn where and when sound reaches dangerous levels in your home or anywhere you go.
- Use Quieter Appliances – Check the labels on new appliances like fans, heaters, window air conditioners, and more for an indication that they run quietly, or have a “quiet” mode. Reducing the noise in your home, even if it is currently under 85 dBA, can reduce the likelihood of NIHL as a result of dangerous daily average levels of exposure.
- Keep Volume at Half – When using personal listening devices (PLDs), keep the volume setting to half or lower. Many PLDs can reach maximum volumes around 110–115 dBA, which can cause NIHL in the time it takes to listen to one song.
- Consider Noise-Canceling Headphones – If you frequently listen to PLDs on a commute, while traveling, or otherwise in a noisy environment, consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones or earbuds. These reduce background noise, allowing you to set the volume lower on your desired media content. They can also be used as standalone noise-reduction devices, though should not be used as a substitute for earplugs when excessive noise is present.
Whether you’re interested in custom hearing protection, hearing aids, or just haven’t had a hearing test in a while, make an appointment today and celebrate Better Hearing and Speech Month by taking charge of your hearing health!