One of the most common and certainly most preventable causes of hearing loss is exposure to loud noise. Noise exposure can come from unpleasantly loud sounds, such as machinery noise, or it can come from enjoyable loud sounds, such as music. The source of the sound is not important, but there are two factors that are: volume and exposure time. Noise exposure works like a dosage effect. You can safely have a little bit of loud noise for a while or a very loud noise for a very brief time without any damage. Basically, the louder the noise is the less time you can safely be exposed.
As a general rule if you have to raise your voice to have a conversation with someone a meter away then the noise is probably loud enough to be in the dangerous range. More specifically most people can safely listen to noise at 80 decibels, but at 85 decibels it is recommended that exposure is limited to 8 hours. For every additional 3 decibels of volume the safe exposure time is halved. So for example you should not be exposed to 88 decibels for more than 4 hours and 2 hours would be the limit for 91 decibels.
It has been estimated that over 20% of the Australian workforce is exposed to dangerously loud noise at work1. This is primarily from tools and machinery.
However our leisure activities can also be a dangerous source of noise exposure. A recent Australian study2 has found that nightclubs (97dB), professional sporting events (93dB) and live music (92dB) have average volumes well into the dangerous listening zone, with the loudest venues recorded at very high levels (106dB, 100dB and 105dB respectively). The same study also found that the volume at fitness clubs could be as high as 97dB and pubs, bars and registered clubs recorded volumes up to 96dB.
So what can we do to prevent dangerous noise exposure? Well the ideal solution is to stop the noise at it’s source. This may be done by reducing the volume where possible or replacing old, noisy equipment with quieter modern machines. If the source can’t be changed then the next best option is to separate your ears from the sound source with a physical barrier, such as a wall. The next best option is to take breaks from the noise. At work this may be achieved by having staff rotate between noisy and quiet work areas. Finally when all other methods for reducing noise have been maximised and the noise is still too loud then personal hearing protection should be used.
Personal hearing protection is usually in the form of earplugs or ear muffs. Your local Audiology Australia audiologist will be able to discuss the circumstances of your noise and advise you on the most suitable hearing protection. They are also able to take impressions of your ears for custom made ear plugs.
Earwax is a normal and healthy part of our ears. We all produce it, but different people produce different amounts.
Most people don’t suffer from wax build up and if you are one of these people then you actually don’t need to clean your ears out at all. The skin in the ear canals grows like our fingernails – from the inside out. As it grows it drags the wax out with it. So for most people it is enough to just wipe the wax away with a tissue or flannel when it reaches the outer portion of the ear canal.
If you are one of those people who do suffer from wax build up it is safest to have it removed by someone with the proper training. This is usually your GP, ENT or audiologist. The process of wax removal is easier if the wax has been softened with drops for a few days before your appointment. This can be done with an over-the-counter product from the chemist or using a mixture of water and sodium bicarbonate (1/4 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate per 10mL water)1.
There are three commonly used methods for removing wax. The first is syringing which involves using body-temperature water to gently float the wax out of your ears. The second is suctioning which uses a type of miniature vacuum cleaner to pull the wax out. The third method involves using tools to scoop the wax from your ear canal.
You should never use cotton buds to clean your ears. Cotton buds will generally push the wax further into your ear and compact it, making it more difficult to remove. Although the cotton is soft the stick is very stiff and it is easy to scratch the inside of your ear with a cotton bud which may lead to infections. Of course there is also the risk that if you are bumped or if something happens to cause you to lose control you can perforate your ear drum with a cotton bud.
You should not use ear candles under any circumstances. At best they will do nothing and at worst they can be harmful. Scientific analysis of ear candles has found that they do not remove earwax, but can deposit candle-wax in the ear2. A survey of Ear, Nose and Throat specialists in America identified burnt ears and ear canals, perforated ear drums, blockage of the ear canal with candle wax, temporary hearing loss and outer ear infections as risks associated with ear candles2.
In an Australian first, you can now calculate your risk of developing hearing loss through an online noise risk calculator at: knowyournoise.nal.gov.au
A HEARsmart initiative developed by National Acoustic Laboratories, the research division of Australian Hearing, the website allows Australians to find out if their listening habits are causing them irreversible hearing damage.
It features a short online survey that calculates your noise exposure risks based on lifestyle habits and then provides suggestions on managing these risks.
Risky lifestyle habits include loud music, work environments and sporting events.
The website also offers a quick speech-in-noise hearing test that can help you determine if a hearing loss is present.
Knowing your noise-risk profile and the results of the online hearing test allows you to take action and minimise exposure and seek professional help.
The HEARsmart website (hearsmart.org), established by the HEARing CRC, also has a lot of useful information and handy tips to help people reduce their chances of acquired noise-induced hearing loss.
Audiology Australia stresses that these websites does not replace the need for clinical hearing assessments.
'[Hearing] is one of those things you take for granted... Once the damage is done there's no undoing it.'
Josh, clubber, 22 years old
'Music is my life. If I couldn't hear properly, I don't know what I would do.'
Anna, DJ, 28 years old
'If you like music as much as I do, you want to make sure that you can still hear it. It would be awful for me not to be able to hear something I love so much.'
George, musician, 42 years old