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Noise-induced hearing loss: Maybe our teens really can’t hear us

“I can hear what you’re listening to!” If you’ve said this to your teen when he or she is listening to an iPod or MP3 player through ear buds, you are not alone. I’ve had to say (yell) it to my own teens! The fact is: our teens are risking hearing loss.

"I can hear what you're listening to!" If you've said this to your teen when he or she is listening to an iPod or MP3 player through ear buds, you are not alone. I've had to say (yell) it to my own teens!

The fact is: our teens are risking hearing loss. Sound scary? It is. Ear buds are basically tiny little speakers worn in the ear canals. When ear buds are used to listen to high-volume sound over a long period of time, they can cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Our teenagers may painlessly, gradually, and unknowingly be experiencing just that. Here's the data:

  1. One in three people develop hearing loss as a result of exposure to extreme noise.

  2. More than 5 million children between the ages of 6 and 19 report NIHL.

  3. Hearing loss in U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 19 increased from 14.9 to 19.5 percent since 1990.

The high cost of technology. Ownership of iPods and MP3 players among children and teens has increased from 18 to 76 percent between 2005 and 2010. Just imagine where we are in 2013—and right after the holidays!

A MP3 player at full volume is as loud as a chainsaw. Loudness of sound is measured in units called decibels (dB):

  1. 60 dB: normal conversation

  2. 90 dB: lawnmower

  3. 100 dB: MP3 player at full volume, chainsaw, motorcycle engine

  4. 110 dB: concerts (any music genre)

  5. 120 dB: jet plane at take-off

  6. 140 dB: gun shots, fireworks, custom car stereo at full volume

NIHL can be caused by prolonged exposure to over 85 dB; a half an hour of loud sounds can start to damage a person's ears. At just 70 percent of its maximum volume, an MP3 player is still about 85 dB—and what teenager listens to something at only 70 percent?

A half hour is all it takes … yet hearing loss lasts forever. NIHL occurs when there's damage to the hair cells of the inner ear. Hair cells are small sensory cells that convert the sounds we hear into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, hair cells cannot send sound messages to the brain—and these cells cannot grow back, causing permanent hearing loss. Unlike damage to most other parts of the body, inner ear damage never heals. And because it happens gradually, a lot of people don't know they have a problem until it's too late.

Noise is harmful if…

  1. You have to shout over background noise to be heard.

  2. The noise is painful to your ears.

  3. The noise makes your ears ring

  4. You have decreased or "muffled" hearing for several hours after exposure.

Are you worried that your teen may already have hearing loss? Most parents want their teens to have a hearing test, according to a new study. Hearing tests in newborns and elementary school-aged children are routinely done to screen for problems that may affect speech, language and learning. Routine screening of adolescents is not as common. Parents, ask your teenager's doctor for a hearing test or a referral to an audiologist.

Here's some sound advice: Follow the 60/60 rule. That means no more than 60 percent of maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes. Headphones are safer than ear buds. But either way, if people around you can hear your music, it's loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.

Rapper Ben Jackson developed a rap called "Turn it to the Left" to remind kids that they can dramatically reduce their risk of hearing loss by turning down the volume on iPods and other personal stereos.

Won't you ask your teen to turn it to the left?

-      By Rima Himelstein, M.D.