How easy is it to damage your hearing?
With 1 in 7 Australians suffering from some form of hearing loss, it’s important to protect your hearing from an early age. Here’s how.
Lucy E Cousins
Hearing is something many of us take for granted as we talk to friends, attend meetings and listen to music. But unfortunately, hearing loss is a common condition experienced by around 3.6 million Australians.
This progressive hearing loss is different to a congenital hearing defect, which is present at birth. Newborn babies have their hearing tested before they leave hospital using a newborn screening test by a specially trained nurse, midwife or hearing screener.
Hearing loss can be caused by age, noise exposure, disease and injury. A report from the Hearing Care Industry Association (HCIA) found that nearly a third of cases are estimated to be preventable.
How does our hearing work?
Our hearing is created using a combination of 3 sections of our ears, which work in harmony to convert sound vibrations into messages for our brains. First the vibration, or sound wave, is captured by our outer ear. It’s then converted into pressure waves by our middle ear, before being translated by the inner ear into signals that can be understood by our brain.
If this chain of events is broken at any point, it could result in hearing difficulties. These include having trouble understanding people who aren’t facing you, needing to increase the TV volume to a level that is uncomfortable for others, finding it difficult to follow a conversation, having difficulty hearing in loud places and experiencing a constant buzzing, known as tinnitus.
Why do we experience hearing loss?
There are 2 main types of hearing loss – conductive and sensorineural, and you can also have a mixture of both.
Conductive hearing loss includes the presence of foreign objects, wax or liquid in the outer or middle ear caused by colds, infections or allergies. It can also be caused by problems with the ear canal or ossicles (3 little bones in your inner ear). In most cases, conductive hearing loss can be fixed in surgery or with medication.
Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by noise pollution, head trauma, ageing or certain drugs or viruses. This damage is likely to be permanent.
Protect your hearing
The most obvious and easiest way to protect your ears is to avoid loud noises, says Theo Saunders, audiologist from hearing aid specialists Blamey Saunders.
“What people don’t realise is that hearing loss is cumulative so it’s not necessarily one event that will encourage hearing loss, it builds up over time.”
Protect your hearing when using headphones by keeping the volume low. Noise-cancelling versions can help block out surrounding sounds and some devices let you set your own maximum volume. Take regular breaks from listening with headphones.
Saunders suggests wearing ear plugs when you’re exposed to loud sounds, like riding motorbikes, using power tools, at firework displays or music events.
“For concerts, you can buy Musicians Earplugs, which actually accentuate the sound, not only bringing the volume down but also adding a certain amount of clarity,” says Saunders. “I use foam earplugs myself, which you can buy from a chemist.”
Testing your hearing
There are several ways to test your hearing; the easiest is online. The government-funded Know Your Noise offers a digital noise test that can be done at home, while Blamey Saunders has created the first online Speech Perception Test, which measures your ‘speech sounds’ ability.
If you suspect you have hearing loss, get tested. This can help you establish the extent of your impairment, prevent further hearing loss and get treatment, if needed.
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