Originally Published: May 18, 2014 6:01 a.m.
We rely on our sense of hearing to interact with the world every day. Unfortunately, according to the Hearing Health Foundation, nearly 50 million Americans, including 1 in 5 teenagers, suffer from some degree of permanent hearing loss.
Our sense of hearing depends on a complex system that converts sound into electrical signals, which are sent to, and interpreted by, the brain. The inner workings of the ear include the ear canal, eardrum, bones of hearing (ossicles), cochlea (a snail-shaped structure composed of three fluid-filled compartments and lined with tiny hair-like cells) and the auditory (hearing) nerve. Damage to any part of the ear can result in either temporary or permanent hearing loss.
Noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, and also one of the most common work-related hazards in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In fact, NIOSH estimates that over 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to excessive noise levels at work. Noise damages the tiny hair cells that line the inner ear, which unfortunately, because the damage is gradual, can remain undetected for years. Even sudden, loud noises, such as those produced by firearms, may permanently damage your hearing. The Hearing Health Foundation encourages people to beware of sources of sudden loud noise from power tools, firearms and firecrackers as well as recreational noise from sporting events, music concerts, motorcycles, NASCAR, car stereos, powerboats and aircraft - all can cause permanent hearing loss.
Certain medications can damage your hearing as well. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) states that over 200 prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including some chemotherapy drugs and antibiotics, may harm the sensitive hair cells lining the inner ear. The ASLHA recommends reviewing all of your medications (including over-the-counter products) with a physician to determine if any are known to cause hearing loss. However, a particular medication may still be necessary, in spite of its potential side effects, if it is considered a critical part of treatment for a serious condition or disease.
One of the first signs of hearing damage or loss is a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears, called tinnitus, especially after exposure to noise. Other warning signs might include difficulty with clearly hearing and understanding conversations or the frequent need to ask people to repeat themselves. Friends and family may also notice and comment on the high volume level of your television or radio. If you notice these or other symptoms, contact your physician and consult with a hearing specialist, or audiologist, if necessary. A number of services, implants and hearing aids are available for individuals suffering from hearing loss.