Did the Pandemic Affect Your Hearing?
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With many of us working — and learning — from home, we spend more time than ever with headphones or earbuds plugged into our ears.
As laptops, smartphones, and tablets have become a more significant part of our world, a number of conveniences have arisen. Making plans, getting directions, buying things, and communicating with one another is easier than ever. Of course, several health concerns have come along with this technological shift, and an important one of note is the increased risk of hearing loss and hearing dysfunction.
Since iPods, and then smartphones and tablets, increased, the practice of plugging these devices into our ears for hours on end has become a routine. During the pandemic, we, and our children, are on our computers using headphones or earbuds throughout the day. “If used improperly, these devices can certainly pose a risk of hearing loss, as well as tinnitus,” says Tricia Scaglione, Au.D., director of the tinnitus program at the University of Miami Health System. “I’ve seen research on children that have hearing loss comparable to 50-year-olds because of overuse or misuse of their personal listening devices.”
Complaints of tinnitus (hearing persistent ringing or buzzing sounds) are also on the rise. “It’s unreal what is happening. This week alone, I’ve seen maybe three new cases of tinnitus,” says Ramzi Younis, M.D., a pediatric ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist with UHealth. “These patients are mainly in their teens and 20s.” Dr. Younis attributes the uptick of tinnitus in younger people to their increased exposure to loud noises like music and video games played through headphones for hours at a time. “This behavior was more exaggerated during the pandemic lockdown,” he says.
What can you do to protect your hearing?
The first, most obvious step, says Brianna Kuzbyt, Au.D., an ENT expert at UHealth, is to keep the volume at a reasonable level. “If it’s painful or distorted, then it’s way too loud,” she says. “Many devices now have more advanced sound settings, so you can set limits on the overall volume and even receive notifications if the volume is set too loud.”
One of the essential steps for safe listening is to limit outside sounds and distractions. That way, you don’t have to turn up your headphone volume as often, says Dr. Kuzbyt. “When audio or video chatting, make sure your family knows it’s time for your call so that you can focus with limited noise and distractions at a safe volume,” she says. “Also, if the person speaking is hard to hear, you can ask them to adjust their microphone or their microphone settings so that you can hear and understand them more easily without having to turn your volume up too loud.”
While they are bulkier and less convenient, over-the-ear headphones may have less risk than earbuds due to the distance between the sound source and your ear canals. However, the same rules apply regarding volume. If they have noise-canceling features, that’s even better. Noise cancelation allows you to lower the volume level without worrying about outside distractions.
Regardless, you should keep your and your children’s device volume at 60% or lower, whether you’re on a video call or listening to music. When the sound reaches 85 decibels or higher, there is an increased risk of permanent hearing loss.
What if you do damage to your ears?
“Tinnitus is not easy to handle,” Dr. Younis says. “It’s challenging for patients. And, as their doctors, we can’t observe anything within the ear that shows this ringing or buzzing. There’s no objective test that tells us the cause of this bothersome sensation.”
If tinnitus is accompanied by hearing loss, ENT specialists can diagnose and treat physical damage to the ear or correct hearing loss with the latest in discrete hearing aid and sound amplification technologies. When patients experience tinnitus without hearing loss, they can work with a tinnitus expert to learn techniques to manage the symptoms of this frustrating condition.
“It’s similar to psychotherapy with a tinnitus specialist, which we have at UHealth,” Dr. Younis says. “They help you learn to cope with this condition. Treatment is based on analysis of the particular patient, identifying the cause, and finding means of reducing the distress tinnitus can cause patients.”
If you’re suffering with tinnitus, try using a “tinnitus masker” or “sound enrichment” device, which creates ambient background noise to help distract you from the constant buzzing or ringing sounds. Because stress and anxiety can exacerbate tinnitus symptoms, you may also benefit from relaxation therapies, medications, acupuncture, or meditation practices.
Learn more about the risks related to loud noises
There are several online resources available to learn about how loud noise can affect your hearing, says Dr. Kuzbyt. The website, Dangerous Decibels, has fun, interactive ways for kids to learn about hearing loss and listening at a safe volume level. The American Academy of Audiology also has educational resources available on its website, Turn It to the Left.
Updated by Dana Kantrowitz (August 2021). Originally written by Wyatt Myers, a contributing writer.
Originally published on: October 19, 2020