Generation Deaf: Millennials and Earbud-Induced Hearing Loss

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If you find yourself raising your voice around teens, assuming they're tuning you out, you're not alone. Chances are they're wearing earbuds. And, while the use of earbuds is an annoyance, it's also a growing health concern.

Michael Seidman, MD, otolaryngology and a head and neck surgeon, at AdventHealth, says lifelong hearing loss is increasing among teens at alarming rates. Last year, the World Health Organization estimated 1.1 billion young people were at risk of hearing loss because of earbuds.

"Listening through headphones and earbuds at high volumes and for extended periods of time can result in lasting hearing loss," says Dr. Seidman. "Even mild hearing loss due to excessive noise could lead to developmental delays in speech and language."

Today, 1 in 5 teens has some form of hearing loss a rate about 30 percent higher than it was in the 1980s and 1990s which many experts believe is due, in part, to the increased use of earbuds or headphones.

How do earbuds and headphones damage your hearing?

Every day, we hear sounds TV, radio, household appliances, even nature and traffic. Normally, you hear these sounds at safe levels that don't impact your hearing. But when they're too loud, or when they're loud and long-lasting, sensitive structures in your inner ear can be damaged, leading to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

How does noise cause hearing loss?

Your ears have three parts that work together to process sounds: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.

Sounds waves travel into the ear canal until they reach your eardrum. Your eardrum then passes vibrations through your middle ear bones (ossicles) to your inner ear, which is shaped like a snail. Called the cochlea, your inner ear contains thousands of tiny hair cells. These hair cells help send sound messages to the brain. But loud noise can damage them.

When this happens, the cochlea can't relay sound messages to the brain as well. And unlike other parts of your body, once your inner ear is damaged, it never heals. Over time, as more and more hair cells get damaged, your hearing worsens.

Why are earbuds a problem?

Earbuds sit inside your ear canal and place sound closer to your eardrum. Because earbuds don't block out noise, its easy for people, especially kids and teens, to turn up the volume, delivering a steady stream of potentially damaging sound to your inner ear.

So, how loud is too loud?
According to Dr. Seidman, the normal decibel scale puts normal conversational voice at 50-60 decibels.

For perspective, 20 decibels is a soft whisper and 120-130 decibels is a jet engine. I tell patients anything above 80-85 is too loud. Most MP3 players can produce sounds up to 120 or more decibels and at that level, hearing loss can occur after only about an 30 minutes to an hour, warns Dr. Seidman. "If you can't hear anything going on around you when listening with earbuds, the sound level is too high."

When does it happen?
The first signs of hearing loss are subtle, such as missing words in a conversation or having to listen to the TV at a louder volume than everyone else in the room.

It is a gradual progression, hard to perceive, so most teens don't think its a big deal but it is, Dr. Seidman says.

What can you do to protect your children's hearing?

Dr. Seidman offers these suggestions:

  • If you can hear your teen's personal music player from more than three feet away, it's too loud. Turn down the volume to prevent hearing damage.

  • If your teen's personal music player doesn't have a volume control indicator, set a safe listening level by turning up the volume all the way, and then dial it back to halfway.

  • Make sure your teen takes "listening breaks" from loud music or other sources of loud noise to give ears a chance to recover.

  • Ensure that you can still carry on a normal conversation with someone who is wearing headphones or earbuds

I'm troubled by how many people I see walking around, plugged in and oblivious to the outside world, says Dr. Seidman. Whether you're walking down a trail or in a spin class, you should still be able to have conservation without raising your voice. If you can't, then the music is too loud and you're damaging your hearing.

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