Toys With All the Bells and Whistles Can Damage Hearing

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 25, 1999 (Atlanta) -- It's about the last thing parents think about, with all the stress and excitement surrounding the holidays. But an expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston is warning that some playthings can damage hearing.

And she's not just talking about such obvious ear-busting toys as musical instruments or stereo systems. "Some of the video games get quite loud, and the biggest problem is that kids get really close down to the game," says Lois Sutton, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat). "But we were kind of surprised by some things. We had a toddler train with some whistles, and it was loud enough to be concerned about."

Sutton also mentions toy phones as being a particular problem -- with some emitting decibel levels approaching that of a jackhammer.

Sutton explains that the eardrums of children take a more intense hit from loud noises than they do in adults, because children have shorter hearing canals. Also, because of the way in which kids often play with toys -- up close, personal, and for extended periods of time -- even relatively quiet toys can cause harm.

And toys are just the tip of the iceberg, Sutton says. "They go to concerts. Parents take them to noisy events. Truck pulls -- they are incredibly loud. Kids going with dad to the shop. So all of these things add up, and we see the beginnings of hearing loss."

That process is only aggravated when kids enter the boom box and personal stereo system years. Henry J. Ilecki, PhD, director of audiology practice for industry and private practice at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Washington, D.C., says he's amazed by what some children (and adults) are doing to their ears.

"I was on a New York City subway train. It's steel on steel -- they don't run on rubber wheels. There was a kid sitting across from me wearing a Walkman-like device. ... I could hear his music across the aisle over the din of the subway train," Ilecki tells WebMD. "He must have been listening to 100-110 decibels."

Ilecki points out that anything over 90 decibels can potentially harm the ears -- especially if listened to for an extended period of time.

He says it used to be a safe generalization that hearing loss caused by nerve damage was confined to adults. "But now there is so much more noise -- even more than 20 years ago," Ilecki says, and that puts everyone at risk.

"An important message is that although some hearing losses are reversible, that is not the case with noise-induced hearing loss," Ilecki says -- and even worse, it's hard to spot. "I'm afraid that at the early stages symptoms would be so subtle you could not detect it behaviorally -- only instrumentally."

He advises that parents whose children have noisy habits -- whether they are permanently hooked to headphones or have season concert tickets -- to have the children's hearing checked. "The good news is that this is something that is totally preventable," Ilecki says. "You're the master of your own destiny; once you know the relationship between noise and hearing loss you can prevent it."

As for those holiday toys, Sutton says, if you can't talk over it, can't hear over it, or if it causes any pain or ringing in your ears -- don't use it.

Vital Information:

  • Children's eardrums are more sensitive to noise because their hearing canals are shorter than those of adults.
  • Some toys can cause hearing damage, including musical instruments, stereo systems, video games, whistles, and toy phones.
  • Anything over 90 decibels can cause harm to the ears, and noise-induced hearing loss is not reversible.