Hearing has a large impact on everyday life, affecting personal safety, social interactions and daily comfort. But everyday life also can put hearing at risk.

“(Hearing loss) can cause people to withdraw from social situations. They don’t want to go to restaurants because it’s too noisy,” says Dave Neumann, hearing instrument specialist with Hearing Connection. “It impairs their memory and ability to do new tasks and reduces their personal safety.”

Hearing loss is a serious health issue that continues to affect teens and young adults, along with the elderly. Hearing loss occurs when the hair cells in the inner ear that send electrical signals to the brain are damaged by loud noises. There are about 18,000 hair cells in each ear.

According to the World Health Organization, more than a billion teens and young adults worldwide are at risk for hearing loss, often because of how they listen to music.

“Kids do abuse their ears,” Mr. Neumann says. “... At 18 or 20 years old, they don’t think of it. You can have your ear buds centimeters away from your eardrums and crank it as loud as you want.”

Industrial dangers

Workplace noises also can cause permanent hearing damage, especially when employees are exposed to noises for many hours a day. Even listening to busy city traffic for eight hours a day can cause damage.

“Hearing protection is very important, especially in the industrial setting,” says Rick Smith, environmental health and safety manager at LifeLine Foods. “If you lose it, it’s permanent. It doesn’t come back.”

Mr. Smith reached out to Mr. Neumann to help create custom ear protection with improved communication capabilities for employees at LifeLine Foods.

“I was searching for a local provider that would make the custom ear protection and give us the option for a radio attachment for our radio and enhanced communication through the ear plug,” Mr. Smith says.

They started using the custom “Ear Defenders” several months ago to a greatly positive reception, Mr. Smith says. Currently, approximately 30 of LifeLine Food’s 100 employees use the new ear protection. He hopes to have more employees using the ear protection in the future.

“They are a comfortable fit and it enhances the communication, which is extremely important,” he says. “We have a lot of loud machines and critical areas. If there is a communication breakdown, it increases the risk for injury.”

Hearing loss

The recent WHO study found that nearly 50 percent of people ages 12 to 35 years old listened to personal audio devices at unsafe levels. About 40 percent of people in the study also were exposed to harmful levels of noise at entertainment venues.

“I am on the young end of the baby boomers,” Mr. Neumann says. “I was in that rock-and-roll era. I went to concerts and would listen to Led Zeppelin and just crank it. I thought, the louder the better.”

A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 16 percent of teens already had sustained hearing loss possibly caused by loud noises. The occurrence has dropped slightly to 15 percent of adults ages 20 to 69.

The typical conversation is approximately 60 decibels and won’t cause hearing damage, even over long periods of time. Hearing damage is typically caused by sounds 85 dB and louder.

According to Dangerous Decibels, a public health campaign, standard headphones can reach 100 dB, which can cause damage with 15 minutes a day. Very loud noises can cause damage instantly.

“Kids with fireworks or shooting a gun, always wear hearing protection,” he says. “There are three little bones in your middle ear. When you get a sound shock, like a gun going off, those bones can get fractures. You can get instantaneous hearing loss just because of that.”

Mr. Neumann recommends wearing ear protection when doing loud activities such as using a chain saw, mowing, using a weed eater or attending sporting games. Headphones and music that drowns out the outside noise don’t count, he says.

“Some kids, they are wearing ear buds and they are masking the (outside) noise and they are getting a double whammy,” he says. “Try to put ear protection in without adding extra damage.”

A good rule of thumb for listening to music with ear buds is that people shouldn’t be able to hear your music when the ear buds are in your ears, Mr. Neumann says. New technology has made it even more tempting to crank up the volume, he says.

“If it’s clear and crisp and people are connoisseurs of music, sometimes they just want it loud,” he says. “It’s not distorted so some people turn it up even louder.”

Hearing damage is usually slow and many people resist medical attention for an average of seven to 10 years after loss occurs, Mr. Neumann says.

“What happens is when people start having hearing loss, they don’t hear as well. They are reluctant to get help because you can compensate by reading lips or looking at body language,” he says.

Protection first

While some causes of hearing loss, such as heredity, can’t be avoided, sound-related loss can generally be prevented, especially in teens and young adults. Taking the steps to prevent it is important, Mr. Neumann says.

“If it’s going to be loud, minimize your exposure to it,” he says. “If you’re going to be in an environment where you can’t avoid it, put protection in.”

Jena Sauber can be reached

at jena.sauber@newspressnow.com.Follow her on Twitter: @SJNPSauber.