Millions of Americans have some degree of hearing loss and to mark Better
Hearing and Speech month in May, Dr. David Cuthbertson, a physician with
Heath Partners, sat down with HealthCalling to discuss what you need to know about protecting
your hearing – even during daily activities you may not think can
About 10 to 15 percent of Americans suffer some degree of hearing loss
– roughly 35 to 40 million out of a population of 300 million.
The medical reasons
“Chronic ear infections, some people are born with hearing loss
and there is hearing loss associated with aging and in that instance the
tiny little hairs that pick up sound waves become traumatized over time
and never really regenerate,” said Dr. Cuthbertson.
Noise-induced hearing loss
“Noise-induced hearing loss is one where we can intervene and do
something,” said Dr. Cuthbertson, adding it’s estimated about
a third of the hearing loss issues in America are from noise exposure.
Noise higher than 80 decibels can cause hearing loss. For reference, a
rock concert goes a lot higher than that.
“Speakers are 120 decibels. So if you sit in front of one of these
speakers, hearing loss would start in about seven minutes. Initially,
it’s temporary, so if you go to one concert, you’ll have some
temporary hearing loss maybe with a little bit of pain, ringing in your
ears and your hair cells will recover from the initial trauma. But over
time, you don’t have to go to too many concerts like that where
you start to accumulate some permanent damage to the hair cells in your
ear and once they are damaged they do not recover. Over time that accumulation
can cause more permanent loss,” he said.
Decibel levels from firing guns can even be higher, but most people know
and use ear plugs, he said.
Other things that can harm your hearing
“People overlook simple daily activities like vacuuming, mowing
the lawn, trimming hedges, even a hair dryer can be 80 decibels. That
volume and above can cause loss over years and years.
Be aware of daily activities you take for granted. Wear plugs when mowing.
But people usually don’t do that until they see the doctor,”
Dr. Cuthbertson said.
Then there are ear buds
The growing use of ear buds is a little frightening, he said.
“We’re seeing hearing loss at younger ages. Some studies say
10-12 percent of people under 18 have begun to show signs of hearing loss.
The devices will tell you when you’re turning volume past a safe
level but some people ignore that and turn it up all the way anyway. We’ll
see repercussions of this for years to come,” said Dr. Cuthbertson.
What the doctors see
“For most people hearing loss is cumulative. A majority of people
around 65 don’t have a specific incident, maybe they went to concerts,
fired guns and then it’s other things,” he said.
Dr. Cuthbertson worked at Veterans Administration for seven years and some
people had very identifiable causes, such as an IED, mortar round.
But for the majority, it’s a slow accumulation, he said. People come
in for ringing in the ear (tinnitus) and think that’s causing the
hearing loss. But it’s the other way around, he said.
What the doctors do
Dr. Cuthbertson said they gauge how much hearing you have and at what
frequency is the loss. If it’s substantial enough, they suggest
a hearing aid which can amplify hearing at specific frequencies.
Another reason to get a hearing aid is to keep people from becoming withdrawn.
If the hearing loss is not that serious, Dr. Cuthbertson suggests ways
to protect your hearing, such as using ear plugs during yard work and
other activities that can produce higher decibel levels.
What kind of ear protection?
“There are two kinds – the little foam pads in the ear and
those are good. Then there are the ones that go over the ear and look
like headphones. Using both doubles the affect but it’s overkill
for daily chores,” he said.
For people who work in places with high decibel levels, such as an airport
or a factory, there are OSHA requirements for testing employees and how
long they can be exposed to a certain level of sound, he said.
Sudden onset hearing loss
If you lose hearing in one ear and there was no specific reason, it could
be a viral infection and can be treated with oral steroids, said Dr. Cuthbertson..