Ear Plugs Are Not Just About a More Restful Night’s Sleep

While many use ear plugs to shut out traffic noise or to muffle the sound of a partner’s snoring in order to get a better night’s sleep, these simple devices have a use that could be important to a much larger portion of today’s population. Since the first days of the industrial revolution, the planet has been exposed to pollutants. Worldwide we tend to focus on measures to limit the industrial waste and the toxic products of combustion produced by factories and motor vehicles, noise pollution now receives far less attention. Given that noise has been widely recognised as the most common cause of permanent hearing damage, far more importance should be attached to its limitation.

Ear plugs are able to provide a simple yet very effective means of protecting an exposed individual from this type of auditory impairment which has been officially designated as noise-induced hearing loss or NIHL. Despite the ready availability of these inexpensive protective devices, the World Health Organisation figures indicate that the incidence of NIHL is increasing. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that it is no longer a condition confined to the adult population but is now most prevalent among young people worldwide. In the United States, new statistics suggest that 12.5% of children between 6 and 19 now display a measurable degree of permanent hearing loss.

Unfortunately, ear plugs do not feature prominently on the shopping lists of musicians and, among those who idolise their performance, the policy of ‘the louder the better’ is now responsible for more hearing loss than industrial machinery, construction sites, vehicular traffic and airports combined. Even when the concert is over, iPods, tablets and smartphones use in-ear phones to continue pound the wearer’s drums with excess decibels relentlessly. While traveling, excessively-powerful car stereos are almost always played at high volumes that ensure both the driver and his or her passengers are exposed to the same risk of NIHL. Even at the cinema, the love of loud surround sound is taking its toll.

Ear plugs do not block all sound and so can benefit those attending discotheques and clubs, where the music is invariably played at physically uncomfortable levels, but who may be concerned for their hearing health. A greater awareness of NIHL and its long-term implications will clearly be required before significant numbers of young people wake up to the risk and accept the wisdom of adopting preventative measures. At home this could entail nothing more complex than turning down the volume, at least to the point at which the neighbours cease their complaints.

Another important step in combatting NIHL is early detection. An audiological examination will detect any impairment and highlight the value of using ear plugs in the future. Often, however, the damage is too extensive for preventative measures and a suitable hearing aid may prove to be the only viable means to manage existing hearing loss. While the need may well lead to future caution on the part of the subject, prevention is clearly the more desirable option.

Parents must play an active role in protecting their children from NIHL, combining close supervision with precautionary examinations by an audiologist. The Ear Institute is South Africa’s leader in this field and even supplies ear plugs.

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