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Too Much Noise


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July 3, 2001 -- A new national survey shows that children are just as likely to suffer hearing loss as adults from continued exposure to loud noises like music, lawnmowers, and Fourth of July firecrackers. According to the survey, about 13% -- more than five million kids -- have hearing loss in one or both ears.

"What's actually going on is [certain] cells in the inner ear are dying and those cells do not recover,"

says Amanda Sue Niskar, RN, with the CDC in Atlanta. "Clearly in this study there are enough children affected to see that we have an issue here ... this is something that is totally preventable."

Niskar's survey, which included almost 5,300 children aged 6-19, appears in the July issue of Pediatrics.

To reach their conclusions, Niskar and colleagues used a special hearing test called audiometry, as well as another hearing test to exclude other potential causes of hearing loss.They found that boys were more likely to have hearing loss than girls, and preteens and teenagers were more affected than kids under age 12. Geographically, children in the Northeast had the least amount of hearing loss while children in southern states had the most.

Of children with hearing loss, more than half had slight noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears; one in five had mild loss; 5% had moderate to profound loss; and about one in five had, in effect, normal hearing, even though they still met some of the criteria for noise-induced hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss can be temporary, such as when your ears 'ring' after a loud concert, or it can be sudden and permanent such as if you were standing next to a gun or firework that went off.

Much of noise-induced hearing loss happens gradually over time, which is why most people associate it with the elderly. But mild hearing loss as a child or young adult may set the stage for significant premature hearing loss.

If the loss is only in one ear, the child's overall hearing is usually not affected, says Laura Sievers, an audiologist at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

But when both ears are affected, even a slight noise-induced hearing loss can result in difficulty hearing consonants such as s, sh, f and v.

"Consonant sounds are generally soft in intensity and high frequency," says Sievers. "I doubt you would see too much of an effect, but those are the sounds that would be in that [range of hearing]."

In cases of moderate noise-induced hearing loss, the problem of hearing consonants and distinguishing words like 'fish' and 'fist' would be even more noticeable. In severe or profound noise-induced hearing loss, kids may have difficulty discriminating even more words such as 'cat' from 'bat' and their speech may be affected, says Sievers.

Niskar hopes the survey encourages parents and kids to take steps to prevent hearing loss before it's too late. And she has a special warning for people this holiday week: "If you're going to a fireworks display and you're some distance away but the fireworks are still really loud, you're probably going to have at least a temporary threshold shift where you will have muffled hearing and ringing in your ears if you don't wear at least the throw-away ear plugs," she says. "They're a good idea for the whole family on July 4th."

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