The COVID-19 crisis has spawned new health-focused behaviors across the country: repeated hand-washing, standing 6 feet apart at the post office, waving at grandmothers from outside their retirement residences, keeping a cloth mask in the glove compartment in readiness for grocery expeditions. These sanitary practices are all meant to curtail the spread of a potentially deadly virus. But what about other aspects of our health during this pandemic era?
Julie Hyland, AuD, is a clinical associate professor in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders and an audiologist with the Mary K. Chapman Speech & Hearing Clinic. One of Hyland’s concerns during the pandemic is that many people are unaware of the risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
“The only 100% preventable cause of permanent, sensorineural hearing loss is NIHL,” Hyland explained. During the current health crisis, she noted, many people are spending more hours than usual using portable media devices with headphones and earbuds for remote work and schooling purposes. That is on top of using them for entertainment.
According to Hyland, this new normal presents some serious risks: “In a family comprising, for example, parents working from home and children learning at home, there’s going to be a lot of noise. The natural tendency in such a situation would be for everyone to pump up the volume on their individual devices in order to hear over all the background noise. But that increased duration of exposure to higher volumes amplifies the risk of acquiring NIHL.”
Noise intensity + duration of exposure
This pandemic-intensified risk is set within the already high rates of NIHL in the United States, Hyland pointed out. A 2011-12 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that at least 10 million adults in the United States under age 70 (6% of the population), and perhaps as many as 40 million (24%), indicated in their hearing tests the possibility of hearing loss in one or both ears from exposure to loud noise. Researchers have also estimated that as many as 17% of teens are similarly affected.
The two primary factors to consider when it comes to hearing conservation and prevention of NIHL are the intensity of noise – measured in decibels (dB) – and the duration of exposure to it.
The average conversational speech is around 60 to 70 dB. Noise levels of 85 dB or higher – such as from a leaf blower, chainsaw, gunshot, ambulance siren – have the potential to damage one’s auditory system if the duration of exposure is sufficient. Even a hair dryer has the potential to hurt one’s hearing. A typical hair dryer runs at about 91 dB, which does not become a problem if exposure is under two hours. “You are unlikely to run your hair dryer for two hours at home,” noted Hyland. “But a stylist working in a salon might be exposed to hair dryers for much longer than that over the course of a typical shift.”
Protect your hearing
For her patients and everyone else, Hyland offers the following advice to guard against hearing loss:
- Keep the volume of your devices – and your children’s – set no higher than about 60% of the maximum.
- Take breaks. For example, it’s okay to listen to music while working at your computer, but don’t do so for longer than about 30 minutes. Then, turn the music off and get up to stretch for 10 minutes.
- Use hearing protection, such as earplugs and earmuffs, when engaging in loud activities, such as mowing the lawn, attending concerts and woodworking.
- See an audiologist for a full hearing evaluation if you experience signs of NIHL. Such signs include increased difficulty understanding speech in noisy listening conditions or tinnitus, which is a ringing, buzzing or roaring sound in the ears or head.
For parents, Hyland has some additional specific counsel: “You might think that if you can hear the sound coming from your child’s earbuds, then the volume is set too high. But that’s actually more indicative of how well the device is sealing off the ear canal. A really tight seal might mean you can’t hear anything, but the intensity levels might well be damaging your child’s hearing.”
Audiology is an important element in training to be a speech-language pathologist at TU. Graduate students in TU’s speech-language pathology program learn best practices for screening their clients’ hearing. Undergraduate students in Hyland’s audiology courses learn methods of evaluating and treating hearing loss as well as how hearing loss impacts communication and quality of life. Consider joining this dynamic and growing field by applying today.