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Protect your hearing while enjoying the sounds of summer

Fireworks are beautiful, but the high volumes can damage hearing. Trauma centers frequently see people with hand and finger injuries from do-it-yourself displays.

Summer sounds include much more than crickets chirping. Outdoor concerts, parades, Fourth of July fireworks, public transportation and construction sites all have one thing in common - high decibels of noise.

“Once hearing is damaged, it cannot be repaired,” said Dr. Jyoti Bhayani, a certified audiologist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, part of the Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill. She has blunt advice about using headphones.

“Hearing aids have yet to become status symbols, so young people need to wise up and turn the volume down on their ear buds."

Damage to hearing is one component of summertime living that holds dangers that many people often ignore, Loyola experts say. Other things activities be cautious of include:

  • Beginning in early summer, trauma centers around the country see patients injured by fireworks. Hand and finger damage are the most common types of trauma.
  • Friends and family gathering around a fire pit or campfire must be particularly serious and attentive. Young children can easily get injured around cooking grills.
  • Young children can be particularly susceptible to ear damage from the high volume of thunderous fireworks displays. (You can protect their hearing by watching from farther away from the sound.)

One in 10 Americans - mostly grownups - has hearing loss that affects their ability to understand normal speech. Aging is the most common cause of this condition. However, exposure to excessive noise also can damage hearing in higher pitches.

“Hearing loss due to excessive noise is totally preventable, unlike hearing loss due to old age or a medical condition,” Bhayani said.

Here are the registered levels for common sounds, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery:

  • 30 decibels - soft whisper
  • 50 decibels - rain
  • 60 decibels - normal conversation/computer typing
  • 70 decibels - expressway traffic
  • 85 decibels - earplugs are recommended for prolonged exposure at this level
  • 90 decibels - subway, lawn mower, shop tools
  • 100 decibels - chainsaw, snowmobile, drill
  • 110 decibels - power saw
  • 115 decibels - loud rock concert, sandblasting, car horn
  • 130 decibels - race car
  • 150 decibels - fireworks/jet engine takeoff
  • 170 decibels - shotgun

“It is important to know the intensity of the sounds around you,” said Bhayani, who regularly cares for construction and factory workers, frequent air travelers and seniors at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital. “I recommend using hearing protection devices for those who are exposed to excessive, loud noises and musician’s earplugs, which simply attenuate the intensity/loudness without altering frequency response."

Loud noise destroys ear nerve endings

Three small bones in the middle ear help transfer sound vibrations to the inner ear where they become nerve impulses that the brain interprets as sound.

“When noise is too loud, it begins to kill the hair cells and nerve endings in the inner ear,” Bhayani said. “The louder a noise, the longer the exposure and the closer you are to the noise source, the more damaging it is to your nerve endings, or your hearing."

As the number of nerve endings decreases due to damage, so does your hearing. Nerve endings cannot be healed or regenerated and the damage is permanent.

Ear bud warning

Use of ear bud headphones may save your ears from being assaulted by the noise of your teenagers’ music or electronic games, but it may be damaging your child’s hearing.

“About 3 in 5 Americans, especially youth, are prone to hearing loss due to loud music being delivered via ear buds,” Bhayani said.

Helpful hearing hints

Here are a few summertime tips:

  • Cover your ears: “Generic, over-the-counter earplugs are inexpensive and can be found at any drugstore,” Bhayani said. “However, they can be custom-made for comfort and durability. Buy earplugs now and keep them handy in wallets, backpacks, briefcases and purses so you can pop them in when noise is loud and continuous.” Bhayani also suggested using a scarf or even covering your ears with your hands to muffle sound.
  • Swimmer's ear: “Swimmer’s ear is caused by painful membrane swelling due to trapped moisture in the outer ear,” Bhayani said. “Multicolor, customized plugs for swimming are available and a good investment to avoid painful, or costly, ear infections.” After swimming, Bhayani recommended tilting the head to drain water from each ear and gently wiping the outer ear with a towel.
  • Cotton swabs:  Do not use cotton-tipped swabs to clean ears. “Swabs can actually push wax or harmful material farther into ears and many people use them improperly or too forcefully, which can cause pain or damage."
  • The plane truth: Many air travelers complain about ear discomfort when the plane is taking off or landing. “Yawning, swallowing, chewing gum and sucking on hard candy help to unplug the ears,”  Bhayani said. If yawning and swallowing are not effective, pinch the nostrils shut, take a mouthful of air and direct the air into the back of the nose as if trying to blow the nose gently. This may have to be repeated several times during the plane's descent.

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