Hearing loss is a common condition, especially in older adults. About half of all individuals over the age of 75 are hard of hearing to some extent. However, younger people can also develop hearing problems. The number of teenagers with hearing loss is on the rise thanks to the popularity of ear buds for listening to music. To protect your hearing at any age, it’s important to know what causes hearing loss and what you can do to prevent it.

Loud Noises Are the Number-One Cause

Construction workers, landscapers, musicians, and concert-goers are all at a high risk of developing hearing problems if they don’t use earplugs like EarPeace consistently. Repeated exposure to very loud noises (defined as sounds over 85 decibels) can damage the hair cells and nerve cells inside the inner ear, or cochlea, by overworking them. Some other examples of ear-damaging noise include a motorcycle engine (90 dB), a siren (110-129 dB), and fireworks (140-160 dB).

The tiny hair cells inside the ear detect sound vibrations in the inner ear fluid and transmit electrical signals to the brain. Loud noise, however, can cause hair cells to die. When there are fewer cells to transmit signals, hearing becomes more difficult. A lot of cells can die before you notice a difference in your hearing, but once you do, the chances are you’ve lost a large percentage of hair cells. Another way that noise can bring on hearing loss is by damaging the auditory nerve that leads to the brain. This nerve carries the electrical signals the hair cells transmit.

Loud noises can also cause hearing loss when they rupture the eardrum. This is more likely to happen with a single blast of extremely loud noise, such as a gunshot. The eardrum, which is also called the tympanic membrane, is a thin, tight layer of skin separating the middle ear from the outer ear. The eardrum vibrates in response to sound waves. A very loud sound can cause the eardrum to tear, resulting in permanent hearing loss or even total deafness in the affected ear. A dramatic change in pressure when scuba diving or skydiving can have the same effect.

Other Causes of Hearing Loss

While loud noise is by far the most common culprit, it is not the only one. Ear wax buildup can also result in hearing loss. Ear wax protects the ear by protecting the skin from irritation and blocking dust and bacteria from getting inside the ear canal. However, if too much wax builds up inside the ear, it can create a barrier that prevents sound waves from reaching the eardrum. Fortunately, ear wax is easy to remove. Your doctor can do it in a few seconds, or you can use drops at home to soften your ear wax.

Some illnesses can also cause hearing loss. An ear infection in the middle ear, for example, can lead to a buildup of fluid that affects how the middle ear processes sound vibrations. Fortunately, hearing loss due to an ear infection is almost always temporary and resolves when the infection heals. High fevers and meningitis can damage the cochlea, often leading to permanent hearing loss.

Several common medications can also affect the hearing. For example, taking high doses of pain relievers, like ibuprofen and aspirin, can cause temporary tinnitus (ringing in the ears), which makes it more difficult to hear normal sounds.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss

Exposure to loud noise is the most common cause of hearing loss, and it’s also the most preventable. The key to preserving your hearing is to become aware of the level of noise in your environment and take steps to protect your ears. The following are five tips for preventing hearing loss.

First, avoid loud noises as much as possible. An environment is dangerously loud if you have to shout to make yourself heard in conversation or if the sound hurts your ears. If you’ve already had a lot of exposure to loud noise, you may be somewhat desensitized, so a phone app that measures sound decibels can help you become more aware of the level of noise around you.

Second, keep the volume down when you’re listening to music through headphones or ear buds. Aim for 50% of the maximum volume or less. Noise-canceling headphones can make it easier to hear music at a lower volume because they block outside noises. It’s also important to limit the amount of time you spend with headphones on. Give your ears a break after an hour.

Third, wear earplugs at loud events, like concerts, football games, or movies in the theater. The volume of a movie can go up to 104 dB, which is well past the recommended limit of 85 dB. It helps to carry earplugs with you in your bag or glove compartment and to stash them in places where you may need them. You can also protect your ears by staying away from loudspeakers and taking breaks from the noise every 15 or 20 minutes.

Fourth, buy quieter tools and appliances. Many companies are now making products with lower noise ratings. With a little research, you can find quieter versions of many common household machines, including fans, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and even lawn-care tools like leaf blowers and lawnmowers. Electric tools are typically a lot quieter than gasoline-powered tools.

Finally, get your hearing checked. Sometimes, an audiologist can detect changes to your hearing even before you are aware you have a problem. If you can catch your hearing loss early, you can often intervene and keep it from getting worse. If you work in a noisy environment, you may want to get your hearing checked annually.

Final Thoughts

The loss of hearing is serious because it can entail a loss of communication and social activity. Older people who are hard of hearing are more likely to develop dementia, perhaps because they lack social interaction that stimulates the brain. Fortunately, hearing loss can be prevented or minimized if you pay attention to the volume of the sounds you hear and take steps to avoid exposure to loud noise.