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Tips for keeping your ears healthy in a loud world

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are some public health messages that most people seem to have absorbed - things like buckle your seatbelt or brush your teeth twice a day. But it takes time for messages like those to sink in.

BARBARA KELLEY: When I was young, we used to bake in the sun with baby oil. And now none of us, even, you know, little children, wouldn't think about going out in the sun without some type of sunscreen.

KELLY: That is Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. Her question - why don't we think about protecting our ears in the same way? Life Kit's Margaret Cirino has more.

MARGARET CIRINO, BYLINE: Noise-induced hearing loss happens when you have constant repeated exposure to sounds that are at a dangerous level, and it's on the rise for all age groups.

KELLEY: A recent study found that 1 billion young people are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.

CIRINO: That's people between the ages of 12 and 34. This kind of hearing loss is irreversible but also often preventable. And it might not happen how you expect.

ARIELLA NAIM: So we have tiny hair cells that respond to different frequencies. And over time, those hair cells become damaged.

CIRINO: Meaning they don't transmit sounds to your brain as well. That's Dr. Ariella Naim. She's a senior audiologist at Audio Help Hearing Center. She says that since it's about your brain as much as it's about your ears, noise-induced hearing loss can take a few different forms, like if you can't hear your conversation with someone over lots of other people talking in the background, or if you can hear someone talking but you can't understand the words they're saying. Another common symptom is tinnitus, which is ringing, buzzing or hissing in the ears. Both Kelley and Dr. Naim say if you have any of these symptoms, first get a hearing test to establish your baseline level of hearing. You should be doing that even if you don't have symptoms. You can ask your physician if they can refer you to an ENT doctor or make an appointment with an audiologist list. But also, make sure you protect the hearing you already have.

NAIM: The rule of thumb is that when you're listening to a sound at what's considered 85 decibels, you are safe.

CIRINO: Until you hit the 8-hour mark, that is, according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association.

NAIM: But when you increase that sound by 5 decibels, you have to cut the time in half.

CIRINO: City traffic can be around 85 decibels, but an approaching subway train is 100 decibels. And hearing loss is possible after only 15 minutes of that noise. So if you're going to be somewhere loud like a concert, wear earplugs. And make sure you're watching your phone volume as well. There's no official guidance on how loud is too loud, but this is what Dr. Naim told me.

NAIM: As long as you play your music or podcast, audiobook, anything like that, at 60% of the volume bar or less, you would be safe.

CIRINO: Lastly, be careful about cleaning your ears because it turns out you don't actually have to.

NAIM: Our ears naturally produce oils that help keep it healthy and moist. And when you stick a Q-Tip in there, you're actually stripping those oils that are naturally produced, and then that could lead to dry and itchy ears.

CIRINO: With these tips, you're well on your way to building a solid ear care regimen. We tend not to think about our ears in the same way we think about protecting our skin or brushing our teeth, but ears deserve some love and attention too.

KELLEY: Hearing health is a part of overall health. It's about staying connected. It's about interacting with people. And it's about better hearing, better thinking, better engagement.

CIRINO: For NPR News, I'm Margaret Cirino.

KELLY: And for more life hacks and tips, you can go to npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Margaret Cirino
Margaret Cirino (she/her) is a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. Her job involves pitching, producing and forcing her virtual and in-person co-workers to play board games with her. She has a soft spot for reporting on cute critters and outer space (not at the same time, of course).