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Earplugs That Let In the Good, Block the Bad

Trumpets playing

An interviewer asked me the other day what I was doing for Better Hearing Month (May). Every month is Better Hearing Month for me, I said.

Still, when it comes to hearing health, we can’t talk too much about prevention.

Most hearing loss is caused by noise, with age either equal or a close second. If your ears are ringing after a concert or football game, they may seem to recover but that ringing is an indication that you may have suffered permanent damage. It won’t show up on a hearing test, but researchers like Sharon Kujawa at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary have found that even if we have no apparent loss, the synapses that transmit information from hair cells to auditory neurons may be damaged. This makes those synapses more vulnerable to the natural loss that comes with aging.

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In an editorial for  The Hearing Journal, Kujawa wrote.

“These sobering findings have important implications for public health. Once an ear has been exposed to noise, a question that may be asked is whether the noise insult can influence future changes in the ear and hearing; for example, those that accrue with age... Recent work, using powerful new tools, provides clear evidence that it can.”

Prolonged or repeated exposure to lesser noise can also be harmful. “ Noise” is defined as a noxious sound, but “beautiful but loud” can also damage those synapses. Professional musicians can attest to that. Most musicians are now aware of the dangers of noise from their music, and many wear musicians’ earplugs. These are readily available anywhere from to your neighborhood electronics store to the manufacturers themselves. Here’s an article about musicians’ earplugs from The Hearing Review.

Professional musicians are not the only ones who need good ear protection. If you play or coach a high school band, if you practice the violin daily, if you’re in a garage band, you need earplugs. You also need earplugs if spend a lot of time in indoor or stadium sports venues. You need earplugs if you work in a restaurant kitchen, are a waiter in a noisy restaurant, a bartender, an employee of a store that caters to teenagers and 20-somethings. You probably even need earplugs if you’re the lunchroom monitor at a middle school.

In any of these activities, of course, you also need to be able to hear. And that’s the beauty of musicians’ earplugs, which are designed to filter out loud sound and admit quieter sounds. They range in price from $15 to more than $300. Etymotics Research, which makes the more expensive earplugs, also makes a version that sells for less than $15. Interestingly, these inexpensive earplugs rank at No. 386 on Amazon (an enviably low number) for all electronics products, which includes phones and alarm clocks, electric toothbrushes and video games, televisions and laser printers — every electronic product you can think of. That means that a fair number of people have already woken up to the need and are buying earplugs. You can even wear them to that concert or football game and still hear your companions.

Of course if you wear those earplugs while practicing the trombone and then turn your earbuds up to maximum volume when you listen to music, you’re not helping yourself a whole lot. But maybe if you’re smart enough to realize you need the protection playing the trombone, then you also may be aware that you need protect your ears when listening as well.

Better Hearing Month is fine. But what we really need is Noise Awareness Month.

Photo: PSAM/iStock

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