Protecting Teens from Hearing Loss

KNOW THE DANGERS AND WARNING SIGNS

by Sharon Sweeney Keech

If you are the parent of a teenager, it is likely that you have already learned some basic sign language to help you communicate with your child. For example, you probably know that extending your cupped hand in front of you and turning it in a clockwise direction means, “Turn that boombox down, I can’t hear myself think.” A twirling hand on the side of the head means, “Take off those headphones, I want to talk with you.” And, of course, an index finger moved from left to right across the throat means, “If you don’t turn that amplifier down, I’m going to hurt you.”

However, you and your teen probably do not want to make sign language your only method of communication. But if your child is typical, he is probably exposing himself to noise every day that can threaten his ability to hear. According to Stephen Seipp, FAA, an audiologist with the Hearing Assessment Center in Lutherville and also with a company called Applied Hearing Conservation, “Young people now are exposed to much more noise than we were as kids.” Walkmans, boomboxes, and just existing in an area where cars, buses, airplanes, dishwashers, lawnmowers, hair dryers, TVs, and a variety of other appliances and machines make constant assaults on ears, can be a threat to a teen’s hearing. Add in a few rock concerts, a couple of practice sessions with a live band, and a ride in a car with a friend who has a great sound system, and you have the makings of a kid who can’t hear.

What’s worse, damage to hearing is often cumulative and may not show up for years. While one loud noise such as a firecracker at close range can cause a person to lose hearing, more often harm comes from much less intense noise that occurs over a long time. While we may associate hearing loss with the elderly, Mr. Seipp points out that, “Deafness as you get older does not happen just because you get older. It happens because you have had more time to expose your ears to noise and diseases that affect hearing.”

So what can a parent do? “The word here is prevention,” says Mr. Seipp. And the two best avenues of prevention are to limit the noise your child is exposed to and protect her ears when you can’t eliminate the racket.

PERSONAL HEADPHONES

Somewhere in middle school, it seems that there is an unwritten law that states that personal headphones should be worn at all times. What a blessing these are for parents! If your child is listening to Green Day on her walkman, that means you don’t have to hear it. But Mr. Seipp cautions that personal headphones can be a real threat to your child’s ears. “Damage from personal headphones comes from sound pressure. While a CD played on a home stereo speaker may be loud, much of the noise is absorbed by rugs, walls, and furniture. With a personal headphone, all sound goes straight to the ears.”

So how can you protect your child? Mr. Seipp recommends that first of all, if you can hear the song that is playing on the walkman when your child is in the room with you, it’s way too loud. He recommends that parents put on the headphones, set the volume at a reasonable setting, and mark it. If the child is discovered listening at a louder level, confiscate the equipment for a week.

MUSIC TO YOUR EARS

But listening to music on personal headphones isn’t the only problem. If your child attends a dance where a live band performs, goes to a rock concert, or, God forbid, plays in a rock band, his hearing is under assault. It is not likely that you will win a battle to get your child to either not attend music events or turn the music down but you might be able to convince her to take the measures needed to protect her ears when she will be around loud music. According to Mr. Seipp, this can be accomplished with earplugs that come in a variety of types. At hardware stores you can find disposable foam earplugs that are inexpensive and effective. Reusable rubber earplugs are also available. “These earplugs will provide adequate protection if worn properly,” says Mr. Seipp, “and the key word is properly.”

Rubber earplugs must be the correct size; if you pull on them once they are in the ear, the wearer should feel suction. The foam earplugs must be compressed and inserted into the ear so that they expand to fill the area.

If your child is a musician, she may complain that the earplugs do not allow her to monitor her music. In that case, Mr. Seipp recommends special musician’s earplugs. Costs of these plugs can range from $30 to $150 per pair, and they can sometimes be found in stores that cater to musicians or made to custom fit by an audiologist.

Musician’s earplugs have a special filter that keeps the sound from distorting but prevents the harmful frequencies from damaging the ears. Many of Mr. Seipp’s clients are musicians with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and they have told him that once they adjust to musician’s plugs, they find that the filters eliminate extraneous noise and allow them to monitor their music better.

Warn your kids that cotton earplugs, made from tissues, napkins, cotton balls, etc., do not offer any protection at all. Yes, they will muffle the noise, but high frequency sounds go right through cotton, doing just as much damage to their hearing as if they hadn’t bothered at all.

Music isn’t the only threat to a teen’s hearing. Few teens manage to escape their adolescence without having to take responsibility for the lawn mower, the leaf blower, or other work-related machinery. For these chores, Mr. Seipp recommends that teens (and adults!) also wear ear plugs or tight-fitting ear muffs made for noise protection.

EDUCATE

“Start early, monitor exposure, and educate your kids to the risks,” Mr. Seipp recommends. Consider having your child’s hearing checked annually by an audiologist and let the audiologist know what kind of noise your child is frequently exposed to so he can customize the test. For example, an audiologist would be particularly concerned about loss of high frequency sounds for a child in a rock band, and would test a wider range of those sounds for that child. “Noise is an invisible villain. There’s no obvious sign that the damage is going on. There’s no natural mechanism to prevent hearing loss except common sense.”

Any advice that comes from parents is generally looked on as suspect by your teen. You may want to have him or her check out an Internet site called HEARNET that provides information on hearing loss. Run by H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), this site is designed to raise awareness of the real dangers of repeated exposure to excessive noise. Artists such as Pete Townsend of The Who talk about what it’s like to have hearing damage and Lars Ulrich of Metallica discusses how the members of his band protect their ears. Information about hearing protection is also available.

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