Health & Fitness

Ear buds and loud concerts are not your ears’ favorite music

TESTING PRECIOUS HEARING:  Dr. Annie Rodriguez conducts a hearing examination on Henry Figueroa, 3, as his mother, Jylinette Fontani, holds him in one of the pediatric audio booths at UM’s med school recently.
TESTING PRECIOUS HEARING: Dr. Annie Rodriguez conducts a hearing examination on Henry Figueroa, 3, as his mother, Jylinette Fontani, holds him in one of the pediatric audio booths at UM’s med school recently. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Elies Guennoun woke up one morning with tinnitus, it wasn’t exactly music to his ears.

Elies, 14, a teen DJ and songwriter and a sophomore at Miami Beach Senior High, is one of a growing number of young people who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. His discomfort began the day after he played a gig without protective gear. His condition was exacerbated about a week later by very loud Fourth of July celebrations. When the ringing in his ear wouldn’t quit, the pain and stress landed him in his doctor’s office for evaluation.

“About 20 percent of 10- to 20-year-olds suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. I’m seeing more patients with this condition than I did last year,” says Dr. Ramzi Younis, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at UHealth-University of Miami Health System and Guennoun’s physician. “The widespread addiction to electronics in the form of music and games played at high volumes, coupled with attendance at ear-piercing music concerts, is becoming a public health concern.’’

But portable music players and concerts have been around a long time, so why are teen hearing problems cropping up in bigger numbers now?

It’s the sheer number of songs the latest models of music players can hold, said Dr. Sandeep Dave, of the division of pediatric otolaryngology at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “Older portable music players (such as the Sony Walkman) could only hold one CD or cassette at a time, so people listened for a shorter period of time. Today’s players store thousands of songs, so we are prone to listening for longer periods of time, which leads to more ear damage. Then there are all the deafening video games. And on top of all that, rock concerts have increasingly gotten louder over the years, with teens failing to protect their ears against such high decibels.”

The intensity of sound is measured in units called decibels. Any sounds over 80 decibels are considered hazardous with prolonged exposure. The problem with inner ear buds, which teens favor over headphones, is that the ear buds don’t block out ambient noise, Dave explains. The teen turns up the volume to hear the song, often at an unacceptable and dangerous decibel level. If someone close to you can hear the music, the volume is too loud.

There are two types of ear injuries — temporary threshold shifts and permanent threshold shifts.

“With a temporary threshold shift, any ear discomfort, such as ringing in the ear due to noise exposure, dissipates and hearing returns to normal within 24 hours,’’ Dave said. “But multiple temporary shifts can cause permanent threshold shifts and this is when patients need to seek treatment. Prolonged exposure to high decibels for long periods of time with the ear too close to the source of the sounds are strong factors in noise-induced hearing loss. There can be no reversal in the damage done, but further damage won’t progress if certain steps are taken.’’

The message that doctors try to tell teens is called the 60/60 rule: Listen at 60 percent of the maximum volume for only 60 minutes at a time. But Younis uses a triple 60 rule. In addition to lowering the volume and controlling the time exposed to noise, he highly recommends that an additional 60 minutes be spent “unplugged.’’

“Do low-key activities with little impact to the ear such as reading.”

There are other ways to negate the risks of noise-induced hearing loss:

Use noise-canceling headphones instead of inner ear buds. Headphones will keep the direct acoustics out of the ears. Some models even have a smart volume feature that will regulate the music at the proper decibels.

Position yourself in the middle of the room when going to a concert, club or loud party to stay a safe distance from the speakers.

Dave recommends teens who play in bands or are DJs invest in custom ear protection. These custom ear molds can be made by a physician. For others, use ear plugs when attending music concerts.

Elies has some sage words of his own: “I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone. I’m fine now and know how to regulate my exposure to noise much better. My advice: Unplug and take a break. Occasionally listen to music the old-fashioned way, like from a stereo system, with the volume turned down, of course.”

How do you know if you have noise-induced hearing loss?

Ask yourself these questions:

▪ Do I have ringing, a roaring sound or pain in my ears?

▪ Am I hearing people less clearly?

▪ Am I asking people to repeat themselves?

▪ Are my family members and friends asking me to turn down the volume of the TV, but I hear it at normal

level?

▪ Can the person next to me hear my music even though I am wearing ear buds?

It is recommended to seek medical advice for conditions lasting longer than a few days.

The sounds of life

Any sounds over 80 decibels are considered hazardous with prolonged exposure.

The humming of a refrigerator: 45 decibels

Normal conversation: 60 decibels

Noise from heavy city traffic: 85 decibels

Motorcycles: 95 decibels

An MP3 player at maximum volume: 105 decibels

Sirens: 120 decibels

Firecrackers and firearms: 150 decibels

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