Monday, September 17, 2012

The Trouble with Earbuds

     The Journal of the American Medical Association published a report indicating an increase in adolescent hearing loss. Does listening to loud sounds through earbuds—the tiny electronic speakers that fit into your ears—affect some adolescents’ hearing? Well, the answer is “maybe.” Otolaryngologist Kirby Scott, DO, FACS, FAAOA says that studies are still ongoing concerning the long-term effects of earbuds and hearing loss. “Earbuds and their use are still somewhat new, but everything should be done in moderation,” he warns.

      Dr. Scott explains that any significant noise in the ear canal isn’t good. “With earbuds, you’re putting a lot of energy into the ear canal. The ear canal can sustain loud noise for a short period of time.” Do you remember going to a rock concert and experiencing ringing in your ears for several days afterwards? It’s known as noise trauma, and thankfully, the ringing goes away. But not all damage is reversible.

Types of hearing loss
     Dr. Scott explains two kinds of hearing loss that can be associated with earbuds: sensorineural and conductive. Sensorineural occurs when there is damage to the inner ear, reducing the ability to hear faint sounds. This is the most common type of permanent hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is caused by something blocking the sound from getting through the outer or middle ear—like fluid or wax build up.

     Earbuds can cause permanent nerve damage (sensorineural) and agitate those with wax build up or swimmer’s ear (causes of conductive hearing loss). You can even get infections of the outer ear by sharing your earbuds with a friend!

How loud is too loud?
     Loud noise can damage the sensitive cells in your ears. The danger zone is anything over 100 decibels—like the noise from a chain saw. Dr. Scott says that if a bystander can hear the music from your earbuds while you’re wearing them, it’s too loud. Some kids listen to music at 110 to 120 decibels while others fall asleep wearing earbuds. Neither of those are good ideas, says Dr. Scott.

What’s that you say?
If you’re worried that your friend or child is hard of hearing, look for these signs:
  • Asking things be repeated 
  • Having difficulty following directions 
  • Listening to the TV at a loud volume 
  • Showing extreme attention while someone is speaking 
  • Having trouble identifying sounds 

     Any of these signs should prompt a visit to an otolaryngologist (also known as an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, or ENT). Dr. Scott also says that genetics play a role in hearing loss. If there’s a family history of a relative wearing hearing aids before age 40, look out. Nature—listening to loud music—and genetics can be a bad combination.

What to do
     Once again, everything in moderation. Use MP3 devices, including iPods, for no more than an hour a day—and below 60 percent of maximum volume. Parents can set a volume limit on their children’s iPods and lock them with a code. But Dr. Scott, a knowledgeable father and physician, recommends buying your child over-the-ear headsets like the ones worn by Olympic athletes. The trendy noise-canceling headphones make it possible to enjoy music without raising the volume excessively. It’s a popular and effective way to prevent hearing loss down the road.

By: Anne Gill

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