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What You Need to Know About Noise

Even everyday sounds affect hearing over time

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    Protect Those Precious Ears

    En español l The racket in our everyday lives — from the leaf blower in the yard to the screaming of a siren in the street — is a main culprit in NIHL (noise-induced hearing loss). The good news is that some of the damage is preventable.

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    What Causes NIHL?

    Hearing loss can be caused by a single exposure to an intense noise or by repeated exposure to loud sounds over time. Any sound at or above 85 decibels can be harmful. The highest peak decibel level ever recorded during a sporting event at a stadium was 142.2 decibels.

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    Who Is Affected?

    Noise can damage hearing in anyone from children to adults. About 24 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to noise at work or in leisure activities.

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    What Are the Warning Signs?

    The signs may be immediate (you suddenly can’t hear after a loud burst of noise) or gradual. Over time you may find you can’t hear people talking in a noisy restaurant or you need to turn the sound up on the TV.

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    Can NIHL Be Reversed?

    No. Hair cells that carry sound within our ears are damaged and can eventually die (this micrography image shows healthy cells), causing the auditory system to work less efficiently.

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    How Can NIHL Be Prevented?

    Know that any noise at or above 85 decibels can cause damage, and share the message with friends and family. If you participate in loud activities such as shooting, woodworking or even attending a football game, protect your ears with earplugs or other activity-specific devices sold at hardware and sporting goods stores. They work, according to research published last year in JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery. Researchers divided 51 people at an outdoors music festival into two groups: One wore earplugs, one did not. The result: only 8 percent of those who wore earplugs showed signs of temporary hearing loss, compared with 42 percent in the unprotected group.

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    What Research Is Being Done?

    Researchers have identified some of the genes important for hair cell development and are using this knowledge to try to develop treatments for hearing loss. Others are hoping stem cells can provide an answer. This year scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts Eye & Ear discovered a combination of drugs that prompted certain stem cells in the cochlea to become hair cells. They established that this “drug cocktail” could work with human tissue but will not be clinically available for about 18 months. The results of this potential for treating hearing loss were published in Cell Reports.

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