Dear Mayo Clinic, I recently found that I often ask people to repeat themselves and I have to turn the TV up louder than before. How do I know if I have a hearing loss? I’m 46. Am I too young to have hearing loss? Can I take steps to prevent future hearing loss?
Answer: The ears are an important part of the body and damage to the delicate structures they house can lead to hearing loss and balance problems. Both can happen suddenly or over time. It is common for adults to experience hearing loss and balance problems as they age.
Even if you think you are too young, hearing loss can happen at any age due to a number of factors. Almost 1 in 4 people in the US aged 20 to 69 have some degree of hearing loss. This hearing loss is often caused by loud sounds or noise.
People are surrounded by noise every day. The rush of traffic, the hum and grind of machines, people talking, music and gossip on the radio, and airplanes flying overhead are examples of this.
Most people probably don’t think about these familiar sounds. They are generally not loud enough to be disruptive or cause hearing damage. But sometimes a sound is too loud, and some sounds can cause permanent damage.
Noise is measured by its decibel level. A decibel is a unit used to measure how loud something is.
In general, sounds below 70 decibels will not harm your ears. Damage can occur if the noise is above this level. The higher the decibel level, the more damage your ears will suffer.
Patients often ask, “How loud is too loud?”
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you have to shout to be heard by someone at arm’s length, you’re exposed to too much noise.
However, over time, any loud noise that you are exposed to on a regular basis can impair your hearing. Because hearing loss usually comes on gradually, people often don’t realize how much hearing they’ve lost over time. Although noise-induced hearing loss is usually irreversible, the fact that you’ve noticed changes now gives you the power to prevent further loss.
First, make an appointment for a hearing test. While you may start with your primary healthcare provider, you may be referred to an audiology center and various specialists depending on your situation.
Audiologists are professionals with an advanced degree in all aspects of hearing and balance health care for patients of all ages. They often do hearing tests. Hearing aid specialists are trained to identify hearing loss and dispense hearing aids for adults only. You can also meet an otolaryngologist or otologist, doctors trained in treating medical or surgical problems related to the ear.
Getting a hearing test is easy. Your ears will usually be examined first to make sure they look healthy and that there is no earwax blocking the ear canal. Then wear headphones to hear sounds at different pitches and volumes. The audiologist determines when you hear the different tones at their softest.
You will also be asked to repeat words at a soft and comfortable volume, and possibly with background noise. A hearing prescription or plan is then developed, which may include hearing aids.
Here are some tips to improve your hearing protection and prevent further losses:
• Limit your exposure to loud noise. Take breaks if you are exposed to loud noise for a long time.
• Wear hearing protection during noisy activities. Look for devices that fit your ears well. All hearing protection devices are marked with noise reduction values. The higher the number, the more noise reduction the device offers. Be sure to wear hearing protection at all times when you are exposed to loud noises.
• Consider using close-fitting earmuffs or wearing both earmuffs and earplugs for greater noise reduction. This is especially helpful when using noisy power tools or lawn equipment. Special earmuffs are also designed for use with firearms.
• Children also need protection from noise. Specially designed earmuffs are available for infants and young children. Make sure you limit the volume of any personal hearing aids your children use.
• Place pads under noisy devices and do not run multiple devices at the same time.
• Install carpets to absorb sound.
• Seal windows and doors to block traffic noise.
In general, it’s a good idea to have a hearing test until age 60 and every few years thereafter. Now that you realize you have a hearing loss, you may be advised to have your hearing tested annually or whenever it changes.
— dr Jamie Bogle, Otorhinolaryngologist – Head and Neck Surgery, Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, Ariz.