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Life can be quite noisy. Most people realize that loud sounds such as firecrackers, rock concerts, or gunshots can damage hearing. But moderate sounds—the hum of a vacuum cleaner, roar of a lawn mower, sounds on a car radio, or noise in a factory—are also contributors to hearing loss.

Noise-related hearing loss is not typically an overnight occurrence. It is the loudness of a sound and the amount of exposure a person has to it that eventually leads to hearing loss.

This is why it is important to realize when a sound is too loud, and know what to do to protect your ears.

“The best way to know if you need to use hearing protection is to remember that if you need to raise your voice to be heard over the sound, then the noise is potentially damaging,” says Joilyn Bush, Au.D., assistant professor, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Division of Otolaryngology.

Noisy situations
Of course, avoiding the noise is the best solution, but ear protectors are the next best option when required to be in a noisy environment.

People who work in a loud industrial setting should wear ear plugs or ear muffs to soften the sound. When doing activities around the home, such as mowing the lawn, it is also important to protect your ears.

Many have experienced a ringing in the ears—called “tinnitus”—at some point during their lives. Most of the time, this condition is only a temporary problem and the ringing stops. For instance, some may experience this sound after attending a concert without using ear protection. However, when the ringing does not go away, or if multiple episodes occur, an audiological evaluation should be conducted, as it may be a sign of hearing loss. It is also very important to see an ear, nose, and throat physician to check for underlying medical problems that could be the cause of persistent ringing, such as high blood pressure.

Hearing loss can cause difficulty in many situations. It may bring about problems communicating in the workplace, or complaints from family members about a loved one not hearing what they say. It happens so gradually that many people do not realize their ability to hear has decreased.

“Some may notice they are turning up the volume on the television more than they used to,” Bush says. “Social situations may be avoided, such as dinner in a noisy restaurant, where it may be difficult to hear.”

Improved hearing aids
According to Bush, recent improvements to amplification technology are dramatic.

“Historically, hearing aids have a bad reputation as being ‘noise-makers,’” Bush says. “Recent technologies have improved hearing aids dramatically, allowing more flexibility. Now, with digital hearing aids, audiologists can customize the aid for the needs of each patient.”

Cochlear implants are also improving, Bush says. These are surgically implanted electrical devices that produce hearing sensations in the inner ear, but do not restore hearing. While they were previously used only for profoundly deaf patients, patients with less profound deafness may now be able to benefit from the implant.

The best way to evaluate hearing is to have a base-line hearing test. If a loss is identified, hearing should be evaluated every year or two, Bush says.

If you think you may be experiencing hearing loss, you should see a physician or specialist in that field. The University of Kentucky Department of Otolaryngology offers appointments by calling (859) 257-5405.

For more information on hearing, see our feature story Healthy Hearing.

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