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College Hearing Loss


Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a condition that occurs when the ear is exposed to excessive levels of noise. When we hear, tiny sensory hair cells in the cochlea pick up sound vibrations, convert them into electrical signals and send the signals to the auditory nerve, then on to the brain for processing. Loud noise permanently damages the hair cells, reducing the ability to get sound signals to the brain. NIHL can occur suddenly, after a very loud noise, like an explosion, or slowly, through accumulated damage. In severe cases, the damage can be significant enough to greatly impair hearing.

Sound is measured in terms of decibels (dB), ranging from 0 (the faintest sound detectable by human ears) to over 180 (the sound of launching rocket). 30 dB is about the equivalent of a whisper. Normal conversation is about 60 dB. A kitchen blender has a sound level of about 90 dB. Many power tools (like a drill or chainsaw) operate at 100 dB. Sounds at 140 dB or higher include a gun shot, fireworks, and jet engine.

Generally, sustained exposure to sounds of 85 dB or higher can cause NIHL. Signs of hearing loss generally occur over time. Patients may experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears), distorted or muffled sounds, and difficulty understanding speech. Initially, the symptoms may be temporary (called a temporary threshold shift), lasting from 16 to 48 hours. Eventually however, with continued exposure to loud noise, the symptoms don’t go away.

NIHL is fairly common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 17 percent of adults in the U.S. (approximately 26 million people) have some degree of NIHL. The condition also affects 12.5 percent of children and adolescents in this country.

Music and Hearing Loss

Federal regulations help protect hearing of workers who are exposed to dangerous levels of noise. However, there are no regulations for the general public. One important source of excess noise for many people is music players. Researchers report most portable music players can play sounds reaching 100 to 110 dB. Maximum sound output of the popular iPod has been measured at 115 dB. Researchers say the earbud-style earphones, which keep sounds inside the ears, can increase the sound intensity of portable music players by roughly another 5 dB.

College Concerns

Investigators at University of Florida in Gainesville have been screening college students for eligibility to participate in hearing-related studies. When the researchers tested the students’ hearing, 25 percent of the volunteers were found to have a hearing loss of at least 15 dB. Speech & Hearing Researcher, Colleen Le Prell, Ph.D., says this level of hearing loss is believed to be high enough to cause significant problems with speech understanding and thus, possibly interfere with classroom learning. In addition, roughly 8 percent of the potential participants had hearing loss of 25 dB, which is considered the mark of mild hearing loss. More importantly, Le Prell says, all of those who were found to have hearing loss believed they had normal hearing, so they were completely unaware of their hearing deficit. Further investigation found use of personal music players to be a key factor in the hearing loss for college students, especially for males.

Currently, University of Florida researchers are working on a drug that may help protect the hearing structures from NIHL. In the meantime, Le Prell says it’s important to educate all children and adults on the dangers of listening to loud music because there’s no way to fix the damaged hair cells. Hearing aids can help patients with mild degrees of hearing loss, but won’t benefit those with significant NIHL. Those with severe NIHL may require a cochlear implant.

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