Protect your hearing

by 27 May 2009

The most common preventable cause of deafness in this country is noise-induced hearing loss, writes Benson Riddle

If you have good hearing now it is important to preserve it, because once hearing is damaged, it often cannot be restored.

Sound is picked up by a small, spiral- shaped organ called the cochlea that is lo cated within the inner ear. Thousands of tiny hairs in the cochlea sense the vibration and pass the message to the brain via the cochlear nerve, but these sensitive hairs can be damaged by excessive noise. The scar tissue that results from this damage cannot conduct sound.

However you generally get no warning, be cause a sound has to be particularly loud to produce any pain, so the inner ear can still be harmed by noise even when it doesn't send you a pain signal. So if you are continually ex posed to loud noise (90 decibels or above) it can produce permanent damage to the cochlea without any sharp pain to warn you. A rule of thumb is if you need to shout to be heard over the noise, it is potentially damaging.

It is important to realise that hearing loss is more than just an inconvenience as you get older, and for everyone to try to avoid loud noise as much as possible. Loud bangs tend to be even more damaging than continuous noise, particularly when they occur with no warning, which is most often the case. As with sun exposure and skin damage, the amount of hearing damage is related to the intensity of the noise and the length of time you are exposed to it.

Here are a few simple things you can do to protect your hearing:

1. Avoid exposure to noise when you can, and do not deliberately subject yourself to very high sound levels such as noisy machinery or loud concerts.

2. Personal stereos can be damaging if they are too loud. A good way to tell if the vol ume is too loud is to check if you can hear what’s going on around you. If you cannot hear a person near you speaking at a nor mal level, or if your music is loud enough for others to hear, then it’s time to turn down the volume.

3. For musicians, who are particularly at risk, wear special earplugs.

4. Consult with your OH&S officer at work if you are concerned about noise levels in the workplace. Remember, it is an em ployer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment.

5. If you do work with machinery, make sure you wear the appropriate hearing protection at all times.

6. If you cannot avoid loud sound, then you should protect your ears with earplugs or ear muffs. Balls of cottonwool or paper tissue offer little protection.

7. Give your ears frequent rest from noise.

8. Remember that everyday equipment, such as lawnmowers and power tools, may be loud enough to be damaging your ears.

9. Get your hearing tested regularly and if you are at all concerned about your hearing, speak to your doctor for advice.

Dr Benson Riddle, head of department, Peak Health Medical Services.

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