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To protect your kids’ ears, tone down the volume

Consumer Reports News: June 02, 2009 08:08 AM

Dear Tom and Katie,

Listen up! Your daughter, Suri, is trying to tell you something: The noise is hurting her ears!

Suri, the daughter of famous actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, has been photographed in numerous loud venues: covering her ears with her hands as she was swarmed by paparazzi in Manhattan, exposed to shouting fans at an LA Galaxy soccer match, outside the Broadway performance of The Little Mermaid, and boarding a loud helicopter. At the recent American Idol finale concert, her mother even covered her ears.

It’s not just temporary discomfort that’s a concern. Tom and Katie may be unaware that a large number of children are suffering measurable noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). According to published research, about 12.5 percent of American children between the age of 6 and 19 have measurable NIHL in one or both ears. Exposure to harmful sounds can injure the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. We have a fixed number of cochlear hair cells and they don’t regenerate, so it’s important to prevent damage in the first place to reduce the need for a hearing aid later in life.

Dr. James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), explained why prevention is so important:

"Noise-induced hearing loss is cumulative, invisible, and permanent. It’s cumulative because the damage can start when we are young and get worse over time. It’s invisible because it can happen without our even noticing it, particularly in young people, until it’s too late. And it’s permanent because, unlike a broken arm that will heal itself over time if properly set, we can’t ‘heal’ our hearing. Once it’s damaged, it’s damaged for good."

He also points out that researchers have found that people exposed to noises 85 decibels (dB) or higher are at greater risk for cumulative NIHL. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so an MP3 player played at maximal levels (which is around 105 dB in some cases) is about 100 times more powerful than 85 dB. And it doesn’t take long to cause injury at those levels. Sounds at 100 dB can cause damage after 15 minutes of unprotected exposure. Regular exposure to sounds at 110 dB for more than a minute risks permanent hearing loss! Kids’ ears also tend to be more sensitive than adults’.

So it’s not surprising that Suri would cover her ears, and important that her parents protect them. The noise near a chopper has been reported to range from 116 to121 dB. Soccer stadiums can reach over 101 dB in the United Kingdom, and truck traffic is about 90 dB. Rock concerts can reach up to 120 decibels, and other kinds of music can be damaging as well. During performances in large indoor concert halls like the Nokia Theater, where the American Idol finale took place, bands may use amplification equipment totaling upward of 500,000 watts. That can be risky for adults and 3-year olds alike.

Tom, Katie, and all parents out there can take steps to prevent NIHL in their children and themselves. We advise you to:

  • Use hearing protectors such as ear plugs on your children when needed and use them yourself so your children will learn by example.
  • Learn the decibel levels of common sources of noise that can damage hearing, then control exposure accordingly.
  • Remind your children to avoid sitting near speakers at auditoriums and concerts.
  • Turn down the volume on your headset, television, or car radio.
  • If possible, set the top volume level on your child’s MP3 player to a safe level.
  • Check the noise level in your child’s toys.
  • Have your hearing and your child’s hearing tested by a certified audiologist.

For more info:

It's a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

And read our prior blogs:

iPods can be a hazard to your hearing, but noise canceling headphones may help

What’s that you said about mower noise?

People of all ages can develop NIHL, which affects 26 million Americans. Read our recent hearing aid survey.

—Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser, Consumer Reports

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