Listen up: The high volume of hearing loss

Kids and teens regularly exposed to second-hand smoke are almost twice as likely to develop hearing loss than children who aren’t usually around it, according to a recent study by the Archives of Otolaryngology. And if something as seemingly unrelated as second-hand smoke contributes to hearing loss in kids, what else can erode a child’s hearing?

Brian Fligor, ScD, director of Diagnostic Audiology at Children’s Hospital Boston, says everyday things that seem harmless are actually degrading our hearing without us realizing it. “Unfortunately, hearing loss is something that affects a lot of people, but it’s also something we can’t see,” he says. “It’s kind of a sinister thing.”

Fligor explains that “overworking” the ears can lead to hearing loss; and that overworking can come not only from too much sound, but also from pollutants and chemicals like second-hand smoke. “Our ears require nutrients and oxygen to stay healthy and do their jobs,” he says. “When they’re over-worked, they become starved, and all of the energy goes into processing the sound or chemical, making it much more difficult for our bodies’ natural antioxidants to protect us the way they’re meant to,” he says.

Other common ways children’s ears can get overtaxed is by listening to stereos or earphones too loudly, attending loud concerts and sporting events and participating in noisy activities like lawn mowing, wood-working or target shooting without protecting their ears.

To avoid over-use, Fligor suggests having children wear earplugs during loud events and activities and monitoring the volume in their headphones. “I suggest that parents set their kids’ iPod levels to something that is comfortably loud for them in the house, and since iTunes allows you to set a maximum volume for iPods, it’s easy to do.”

Brian Fligor, ScD

Hearing loss in children doesn’t always show up as obviously as one might think. Sometimes, it’s identified as a behavioral issue, such as having attention problems or an inability to follow along in class or in groups. “If a child can’t hear another person clearly, they don’t respond correctly or fulfill the other person’s expectations, which causes frustration on both parts and can be mistaken for a lack of focus,” says Fligor. In younger children, hearing loss can show up as speech or language delay, since the child’s ability to mimic sounds is impacted.

Fligor offers these additional tips on preventing hearing loss:

  • Follow your doctor’s recommendations for immunizations. The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella, all three of which can cause hearing loss.
  • Don’t skip medications, and always finish a prescribed round of antibiotics. “When you stop taking antibiotics as soon as symptoms fade, you’re only killing the weak germs, and leaving the strongest ones to survive. Those will be harmful on your body and will affect it negatively in different ways,” says Fligor.
  • Address ear infections quickly. “We know that kids with chronic ear infections tend to have poorer hearing over time, but healing it sooner can help.”

Most of all, Fligor suggests setting a good example for kids by protecting your own ears when you’re listening to something loud. “It’s just like using sunscreen,” he says. “You protect your skin from burns, and your kids know to do that too. Protecting your hearing is no different.”