Listen loud now, pay hard later

Do you go clubbing for more than two hours each time? Play your music over your earphones so loud that people around you can hear what you're listening to? Find yourself unable to hear other people clearly when they are talking to you? Have ringing in the ears?

If you have answered yes to at least two of the above, beware - you might be suffering from hearing loss.

Just because you are young does not mean your body is in tip-top condition. While the leading cause of hearing loss worldwide is age-related hearing loss, the second leading cause is loud noise exposure, which the young constantly subject themselves to, pointed out Associate Professor Lynne Lim from National University Hospital (NUH).

Dr Lim, who is also the director for the Centre for Hearing Intervention and Language Development at NUH, is concerned that people are putting themselves in harm's way by exposing themselves to overly loud noises.

"Loud movie theatres, home entertainment systems, game arcades, even squeaky toys - a lot of noise dangers lurk in our daily lives," said Dr Lim. Added to these is the ubiquity of MP3 players, which many people use to drown out noise from the environment every day as they travel to work or school.

You might not realise it now, but constant noise exposure can lead to irreversible hearing loss, and many noises which seem common to you are actually far too loud for your ears.

This is because humans can only be safely exposed to a maximum of 85 decibels (dB) of noise - the equivalent to traffic noise on the road - for 8 hours without ear protection such as ear plugs, explained Dr Lim. "The safe duration of exposure reduces logarithmically, not linearly. At 91dB - just an increase of 6 dB in sound - hearing can be damaged permanently in 2 hours."

"At 100dB, the safe duration drops to 15 minutes only. An MP3 player at full blast may be at 100dB." she said. If the people around you can hear the music you are listening to through your earphones, it is a sign that you have turned up the volume too high.

Even more alarming is the fact that the full impact of modern lifestyle on hearing has not emerged.

Effects come out slowly

"The effects of noise-induced hearing loss come out slowly and gradually over a period of years of consistent noise exposure," said Dr Lim. "This is probably the reason why we don't see much of these young and people in our clinic now, as the MP3 trend has just begun.

"Most likely, young people will only start to notice their high frequency hearing loss around ten years from now when they are not as young anymore and their love for loud music has taken its toll.

"Listen loud now, pay hard later."

Dr Lim added that if one is frequently exposed to long periods of noise - be it from MP3 players, game arcades, movie theatres, discos, etc - one should consider getting a hearing test. This is because the ear's ability to detect high frequencies is the first to be affected by noise-induced hearing loss, something that may not be detectable without a hearing test.

Noise-induced hearing loss is an irreversible condition. However, there are ways to prevent it. Dr Lim shared the following pointers:

Avoid listening to very loud music. Wear the correct hearing protective devices if you know that you will be exposed to loud noises at work. Have yearly hearing tests if you are exposed to loud noise consistently, and go for a hearing test if you suspect hearing loss.

If one has already suffered some loss of hearing, one has to avoid further exposure to loud noise so as to prevent the condition from worsening. While there are no medications that can cure noise-induced hearing loss, hearing aids can help. "Sometimes, middle ear implant surgery is possible for patients who have failed to obtain benefits from hearing aids," added Dr Lim

One should also take care of one's general health, said Dr Lim. "Diseases that compromise blood circulation like diabetes, hypertension and heard disease, are likely to aggravate hearing loss."

Dr Lim also cautioned against the common practice of using cotton buds to clean the ear: "Do not over use cotton buds to dig the ears as the ears are self cleaning usually. Over use of cotton buds can cause infection and itchy ears."

Hearing test

A thorough hearing loss test usually takes about 20 - 30 minutes, and unlike many other physical examinations, is absolutely painless.

One is seated in a sound-proofed cubicle and fitted with headphones and a handheld buzzer. When one hears a sound through the headphones, one presses the buzzer.

An audiologist will play sounds of varying frequencies and volume in order to ascertain which frequencies one is unable to detect. These frequencies will paint a clear picture of the extent of one's hearing loss.

No preparation is required for the hearing test, which is ordered by a doctor if he suspects hearing loss, or if the patient has had long-term exposure to loud noises.