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February 2000 Issue
Loud Noise IS Harming Your Hearing
by Michael Fick
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Did you know too much noise -- even just one incident -- can harm your sex life? Why? Because -- and I'm going to shout it in case you're already there -- LOUD NOISE HARMS OUR HEARING, and hearing loss affects many aspects of our lives every day. We are bombarded by that message, but it still falls on millions of deaf (or soon-to-be-deaf) ears.

How does loud noise hurt our sex lives? Because loud noise DOES (not "may"; DOES) harm our hearing, and it doesn't take much hearing damage to make bar or party conversation very hard to understand. If she says, "Would you take me home?" but you thought she said, "Did you paint the phone?", you're gonna give the wrong answer. And whether the questioner was a new acquaintance or your wife, you're not gettin' lucky tonight!

A single incident of excessive noise can cause measurable, obvious, permanent hearing damage immediately, and will cause it 10-15 years later. In case you went to a loud concert (not just rock; it's the volume, not your taste, that counts), drag race, or duck hunt yesterday, I'll say it louder so you can hear it: ONE INCIDENT OF EXCESSIVE NOISE CAN CAUSE MEASURABLE, OBVIOUS, PERMANENT HEARING DAMAGE.

It doesn't have to be obvious sources like cherry bombs, a war, or a boiler room job. Noisy parties, loud vacuum cleaners, and action movies still do the job; they just take longer. And even before it harms our hearing, exposure to any generally noisy environment decreases test scores and increases blood pressure and fatigue.

But we deny the noise threat, and continue to presume hearing damage is merely an unavoidable nuisance of old age. [If you think tinnitus is just a nuisance, internet forums such as alt.support.tinnitus will shake you down to your toes; tinnitus is the major element of some victims' miserable lives ... or termination thereof.]

Well, let me be the 10,000th voice to shout it from the U.S.: LOUD NOISE HARMS OUR HEARING, sometimes overnight, and always in the long haul. It's not just the other guy; you -- YOU -- have already suffered some hearing loss from excessive noise you could have avoided.

Was it worth it? Was that single target shoot, rock concert, tractor pull, cherry bomb, or ride in your idiot brother's 1,000-watt sound system on wheels worth a significant likelihood of diminished hearing? Were those years of dirt biking, lawn mowing, deafening (get it?) music, or power tool use without hearing protection worth missing segments of conversation, meetings, and movies ... and all that sex?

Hearing damage due to excessive noise is neither rumor, "the other guy's problem", unavoidable, nor bad luck. Hearing damage is a cold, hard, proven, laboratory -- and population -- established, guaranteed, self-induced, direct RESULT of loud noise. It's even more certain than skin damage from sun tans and lung damage from smoking, because not only is it virtually certain, it can happen in a moment or an evening, whereas those other problems take months or years of exposure to do real harm.

How do you know when noise is too loud?

If you live in the U.S. and read more than the New Jersey Journal of Chia Pet Housebreaking, you've heard the answer: ringing ears indicate hearing damage just as surely as a sun tan heralds permanent skin damage. The louder and longer the ringing, the more damage has been done, and the sooner you're going to be asking the nearest person at the movie, meeting, bar, or party that grating, elegant question: "Whaddesay?"

If the ringing doesn't stop, it's called tinnitus. Some sufferers describe it as sounding like riding on a jet aircraft, with its volume ranging from sitting in first class in a jumbo jet to hanging onto the trailing edge of the wing beside the engine. Even at low levels, it affects your enjoyment of life, your performance at the office, your confidence, and others' perception of you. It's that first, irrecoverable, nagging, noticeable little (or not so little) step towards joining my father-in-law, who can no longer hear the love of his life for 55 years say, "I love you." (It's not just age; those tractors began nailing his hearing decades ago, and today's kids are suffering the consequences of loud music even sooner.)

If you're lucky, your hearing damage will not include tinnitus. Diminished volume and distorted sounds affect us only when we're listening to something; tinnitus is there every second, reminding us how stupid it was to walk by that aircraft without sticking our fingers in our ears or to go to that Barry Manilow concert (no kidding!) without earplugs.

I was astounded when studying the ear to learn how incredibly complex and marvelous it is. In one way it's like the new discoveries in sub-atomic structure since I studied that in college, BQ (Before Quarks); the closer we look, the more, not less, we see. What we thought were discrete components turn out to be, under a stronger microscope, made of multiple tinier components with whole new functions. These bits and pieces suffer the mechanical effects of loud noise, much as soldiers get too nauseous to fight when bombarded by acoustic weapons ... sound waves.

Each time this happens to our ears, most of the tiny parts recover. Most.

How many recover depends on how loud was each sound -- each amplified drum beat, each shot, each lawn mower piston stroke -- that hammered our ears. Sooner or later ... and it's happening sooner in life as our world gets louder ... our ears lose enough of them, and enough of our hearing, that even before we notice the difference, our friends see it. They get tired of having to repeat everything at the party for our benefit long before we believe it's our ears, not everyone else's mumbling, that explain why we can't hear squat. Before long conversation at a bar or party is impossible, then later a popcorn bag rustle behind our movie seat obliterates the voice track of a Schwarzenegger flick (that's about where I am now), then some day you can't even hear the train until it runs over you. That scenario is measurably under way in many "civilized" people before we're 30, because our ears die much faster from ignorance and denial than they do from age.

How do we treat loud noise damage? We don't. It's a done deal, except some rare cases which recover a little from immediate and deliberate days of total peace and quiet.

How do we protect ourselves from it? It's really pretty simple to preserve most of our hearing for much of our lives. For your sake, follow these loud noise rules: turn it down, walk away from it, or muffle it with earplugs or ear muff-type hearing protectors. If it catches you off-guard as you walk past a jackhammer, stick your fingers in your ears. Your objective is to reduce your perceived noise level to the point you can converse without having to raise your voice noticeably (or to that apparent level by using hearing protection). If your ears hurt real time or ring later, you failed. For your kids' sake, educate them, and ensure their compliance (in the real world, at least make sure their headsets don't hurt your ears while they're wearing them).

And, for my sake, be QUIET.

Oh, sorry ... it's just the tinnitus whooshing in my ear, as it has been for the past 10 million minutes or so. (No, you never get used to it; you just try not to think about it.)



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