The Medical Minute: Preventing hearing loss in teens

HERSHEY, Pa. — Most people wouldn’t think of getting into a car anymore without buckling up. It’s just what you do; part of the routine of going somewhere in a vehicle.

Deepa Sekhar, assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, dreams of a day when the same can be said for popping on ear protection before mowing the lawn, heading to a rock concert or participating in a noisy sporting event.

Studies are showing evidence of high-frequency hearing loss in adolescents — the kind that comes from noise exposure. But a generation that has grown up with ear buds and surround sound might not even realize what they’re losing until it’s gone.

“It is so insidious that you wouldn’t notice you are having problems until it starts to affect your speech and communication,” Sekhar said.

Click here to listen to a podcast with Dr. Sekhar on the topic of teens and hearing loss.

That is why she has partnered with schools in Hershey and Lebanon to tweak hearing screens that typically only test for low frequency hearing loss that affects speech or the ability to hear in class.

Sekhar has added a number of high-frequency test points to scans of high school juniors to see if it is possible to identify high-frequency hearing loss before it gets worse. “It can be very hard to pin down, so being able to identify it early and prevent it is so important,” she said.

While the prevalence and increasing popularity of portable listening devices such as MP3 players often takes the brunt of blame from society, it isn’t the only culprit. Marching band, sporting events in noisy gymnasiums, and the rising popularity of hunting among even female teens are equally responsible.

Sekhar explains that the hair cells inside our ears can become damaged with repeated noise exposure. “If you’ve ever gone to a concert and left and had ringing in your ears, you probably have some damage to the hair cells from that,” she said.

Because each person is born with a certain number of these hair cells – and they don’t regenerate once damaged — the degree of hearing loss from noise exposure has a genetic component as well.

“If at age 16 I can already see evidence of it, what will happen when they are 30 and 40 years old?” she said.

The key is for parents — and society as a whole — to start paying attention to their own habits and modeling good behavior for children.

Wear hearing protection when mowing the lawn, hunting or going to a sporting event. Use noise-limiting headphones that only let you turn up the volume to a certain point.

Sometimes, parents ask Sekhar for an amount of time or volume level that is okay for their children to use headphones. But it’s difficult to give hard-and-fast answers with so many variables involved.

Are the headphones the noise-canceling type? Are they earbuds or ones that sit on top of the ears? How often are they used? At what volume? All of these variables make a difference.

“The biggest thing is just being aware of it. Most parents don’t even talk to their kids about hearing loss the way everyone tells their kids to buckle up,” Sekhar said. “Some of this is very new for people — I just don’t think it is instilled in the culture yet.”

To learn more about how to help protect your teen’s hearing, visit http://www.dangerousdecibels.org/ or http://www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/Pages/Default.aspx

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Contacts: 
Last Updated January 29, 2014