About 10 percent of all Americans suffer from some type of hearing loss that impacts their ability to understand normal levels of speech. In some cases it is age-related and there isn’t much you can do to prevent it, but in other situations it’s caused by prolonged or damaging exposure to high noise levels that gradually degrades hearing to the point of hearing loss. To better protect your ears, it’s important to understand how hearing loss occurs and how hearing protection works so you can get the right level of protection for your ears.
Hearing Loss Explanation
Inside your ear there are three parts—the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear is on the outside of your head, and leads to an ear canal with an eardrum to separate the ear canal from the middle ear. Small bones inside this area of the middle ear absorb sound vibrations and transfer them to the inner ear where nerves translate the pulses to your brain as different sounds.
Loud noises kill the nerves inside the inner ear, especially when you have prolonged exposure to these loud noises. Fewer nerve endings in your ear means a decrease in the ability to translate sound waves into sounds and you experience hearing loss. Unfortunately there is no way to repair damaged nerves inside your ear.
Hearing Protection Protects Against Loss
Proper hearing protection is designed to reduce the exposure of your nerves to the sounds, thus saving them from damage. There are three basic types of ear protection available: earplugs, earmuffs, and tactical hearing devices.
Earplugs fit snugly into the ear canal and help seal out loud noises. If you’re planning to use this type of protection, make sure they are clean and fit your ear properly—a loose seal in your ear or dirty earplugs might not have the right protection level.
Earmuffs fit over the ears and seal the area around so the entire canal is blocked. They are held in place by a headband, but might not be ideal for situations when you also need to wear protective gear like eyeglasses or headwear.
Tactical hearing devices provide an added benefit of being able to clearly communicate with one another while still protecting your ears from exposure. They are useful in combat or military situations, concert security, and other jobs where being able to hear and communicate with one another is paramount for safety and efficiency.
Experts agree that if you are routinely exposed to noises at 85 decibels (dB) or above (normal conversation is about 60 dB, lawnmowers and power tools are around 90 dB, and snowmobiles and chainsaws are around 100 dB for comparison), you should wear hearing protection.
Determining the Need for Protection
Unless you live or work in a particularly hazardous noise environment, most people won’t need hearing protection for their daily life. Loud noises that are damaging may produce a ringing sensation in your ear, or could cause temporary hearing loss even after the exposure is over. Since everyone’s sensitivity to noise is different, it’s important to talk to a hearing professional about whether or not you should get protection for your ears.