As an audiologist and a human being nearing age 40, I know the lifetime cumulative effects of noise blunt my ears—and those of my patients: an increase in saying “huh?,” tinnitus and sound sensitivity, coupled with a decrease in tolerance for once-cool bars and restaurants. These classic signs indicate not just aging, but noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), or at least what we could call noise-induced hearing difficulties.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a Vital Signs report stating nearly one in four of people in the U.S.—ages 20 to 69 years—shows signs of possible NIHL. And we know from other studies that rates of NIHL in U.S. teens—ages 12 to 19 years—significantly increased over the years as well. I recently heard Nina Kraus, professor of auditory neuroscience at Northwestern University, speak on “Making Sense of Sound: How the Brain Extracts Meaningful Information From the Acoustic World Around Us.” One of the highlights for me was her point that “background noise disrupts the brain mechanisms important for language development.”
Kraus’ work showed me that our profession doesn’t often consider how noise in general affects learning, language development and auditory processing throughout our lives. We tend to think of noise exposure in terms of attending one-too-many rock concerts without earplugs or listening to headphones all day long at unsafe levels or certain jobs carrying high risk for occupational noise exposure—but noise is around all of us, all of the time.
As we consider the theme of this Better Hearing and Speech Month, “Communication: The Key to Connection,” our clinic wants to improve how we think about noise exposure and NIHL. How can we make this daily risk a part of the conversation for our fellow providers, patients, family and friends? Here are some ways we try to raise awareness about noise-induced hearing loss, plus some of our favorite resources!
Free, fun, and informative
- Seek out opportunities to speak at schools, libraries or parent groups about noise and its effect on learning, language development and literacy. Or speak on NIHL in youth (parents seem to love the validation of telling their child—or partner—to turn down the music).
- If you can, offer complimentary hearing screenings as an add-on to other services. At our clinic, hearing screenings are included in any custom hearing protection purchase. We also hold monthly hearing screening events. And we always encourage loved ones to get in the booth!
- SWAG (stuff we all get) time! Earplugs and “noise level meter” rulers or bookmarks are easy ways to brand your clinic and promote hearing education and protection.
- Find other clinics celebrating BHSM and come up with joint ideas for social-educational events.
- Find musicians and performers who want to promote safe listening and hearing protection within their communities.
- Partner with pediatricians and primary care providers on raising awareness to their patient population via social media or in their patient education materials.
- Encourage neighborhood gyms, bars and music venues to distribute earplugs and informational handouts to patrons.
Promote noise-canceling and/or volume-limiting headphones
We turn to The Wirecutter for their rigorously tested and reviewed headphones. Create a list of headphones you recommend to give patients. We also send patients directly to these Wirecutter pages:
Promote hearing protection
Likewise, keep a list ready of recommended earplugs. Some considerations:
- Disposable ear plugs
- Ear muffs for little ones
- Reusable filtered hearing protection
- Custom filtered hearing protection
- Sound filtering devices
Websites and apps for patients
We also direct patients and parents to trusted websites and Apps:
- ASHA Noise page
- ASHA Listen to Your Buds campaign
- CDC Loud Noise website
- NIH It’s a Noisy Planet
- NIOSH Sound Level Meter app
- Go beyond the audiogram. A patient does not need to have a “noise notch” (typically a high-frequency hearing loss with a notched configuration around 3-6 kHz) to functionally experience the difficulties we associate with noise-induced hearing loss. Use listening inventories to better understand your patient’s concerns and needs.
- Go beyond asking only adult patients if they have a history of significant noise exposure. Ask if infants listen to sleep noise machines, if toddlers experience noisy daycare settings all day long, about school age and teenage usage of personal audio devices. Expand the questions on your intake form to get a better sense about a patient’s sound environments so you can better educate them.
- In the written recommendations for all patients—all ages and regardless of why they make an appointment—include guidelines for safe listening and resources for hearing protection. My business partner, a speech-language pathologist, now includes these recommendations in her patient reports as well—something we only just considered while writing this blog post!
We’d love to hear your ideas for educating patients, co-workers, community members, family and friends for BHSM. Include your ideas in the comments below and help us share awareness of noise and NIHL not just this month, but all year long!