What causes hearing loss?
Several factors are linked with hearing loss.
- Exposure to loud noise. Noise-induced hearing loss can affect people of any age, including children. Noise is measured in units called decibels, which indicate how intense sound is. Noise louder than 85 decibels can damage the cells in your ear that are responsible for hearing. Over time, repeated exposure to loud sound means the cells don’t recover, and hearing loss can become permanent.
- Older age. In the UK, around 4 in 10 people older than 50 years have hearing loss of some kind. Age-related hearing loss is usually a result of ageing, exposure to noise, and a family history of hearing loss.
- Ear infections, such as labyrinthitis, can cause hearing loss, particularly in children and young adults.
- Impacted earwax can cause hearing loss and discomfort in your ear. When this happens, the earwax should be removed.
Noise-induced hearing loss is the only type of hearing loss that can be completely prevented.
Why is it important to protect your hearing?
You might not realise how much you rely on your hearing until you have trouble with it. For example, you may start finding it harder to understand people you’re talking to, or to follow conversations. Or perhaps you can’t hear the television and need to turn the volume up to a level that others might find too loud.
Sometimes, the disturbance can be temporary – for example, after a loud concert you might hear a ringing in your ears that eventually goes away. This is called tinnitus, and it’s commonly linked with hearing loss. But even if the exposure to loud noise is brief, it may still cause long-term damage to your hearing.
Noise-induced hearing loss often occurs gradually, so it can be easy to miss the signs. But if you notice you’re having trouble with your hearing, some opticians and pharmacies offer hearing tests. Your GP may also be able to help if you have other symptoms or sudden hearing loss. They can refer you to a hearing specialist, such as an audiologist, if necessary.
What are the main ways to protect your hearing?
Although not all hearing loss can be prevented, you can take steps to avoid noise-induced hearing loss. Here are three of the main ways you can protect your ears.
1. Reduce exposure to loud sounds
In general, try to turn the volume down on anything you’re listening to. This also means you can listen safely for longer. If you move away from the source of the noise, you’ll reduce your exposure and that can help prevent hearing loss. Even just taking breaks from noise can help if you can’t avoid it altogether.
2. Protect your ears
If you can’t get away from the noise, you can also protect your ears by reducing the intensity of sound that enters your ear. You can do this by using ear protection such as earplugs or earmuffs. If you’re unexpectedly exposed to sudden noise, such as a siren or fireworks, you can plug your ears with your fingers.
If you work in a loud environment, your employer has a duty to protect your hearing. They should be taking measures to limit your exposure to noise, such as providing ear protection – make sure you use it.
3. Be aware of sound levels
If you need to shout to be heard at arm’s length, your environment is too loud and could damage your hearing. Normal conversation is approximately 60 decibels, but a nearby siren is double that, at 120 decibels. And it’s possible to damage your hearing in as little as five minutes of being at a loud concert or nightclub (100 to 110 decibels). Helpfully, there are phone apps that can help you measure sound levels, which you may find useful to monitor your exposure to sound.