Health & Environment

Health: Tune in to your teenager’s hearing

If listening to loud music, playing in the school band, or even mowing the lawn is part of your kid’s normal routine, parents may want to tune into their child’s hearing ability.

While infants’ and children’s hearing are closely examined during the language development years, Dr. Judy Rasin, a licensed audiologist with McGuire’s hearing services, said hearing loss may not always be on a pediatrician’s mind while conducting a teen’s checkup.

Because hearing loss is an invisible condition, parents can only be vigilant and watch out for its signs and symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, simple signs in teens include turning up the volume too high while watching television and frequent replies of “huh?” or “what?” when others speak to them.

While these signs may be characteristic of almost any teen during their coming-of-age years, parents can also keep an eye on how long and how often their children use their music devices and at what volume.

Pressure from sound waves can damage the “hair cells” in the ear, which sense vibration and sends signals to the brain. Sound causes part of the hair cell to rock back and forth — but if a sound is too loud, the hair cell can be bent or broken. And once it’s broken, there’s no growing a new one, according to the nonprofit Dangerous Decibels, which educates children about hearing loss. Susceptibility to hearing loss is nearly double among 12- to 19-year-olds who are also exposed to second-hand smoke, according to a 2011 New York University study.

That type of damage can be caused by a one-time exposure to loud sounds or by repeated exposure over time to sounds of various intensities, such as those that come through earphones, Dr. Rasin said.

“If the earphones don’t fit correctly, teens have a tendency to crank up the volume so they can hear it above all the other environmental sounds,” she said.

“The idea is not to crank them up to dangerous levels,” Dr. Rasin said, “even if it doesn’t sound uncomfortable to them.”

Researchers have found people exposed to noise at 85 decibels or higher for prolonged periods are at risk for hearing loss. Most of the MP3 devices teens use today can play at maximum of about 105 decibels, which is almost 100 times more intense, according to the National Institutes of Health.

A good tip for your teens to follow is the 60/60 rule: MP3 players should be played at no more that 60 percent of maximum volume, for no more than 60 minutes, she said. This precaution will help ensure that kids benefit from a fully functioning auditory system.

“We can hear a range of sounds, from tiny to loud, across a wide range of pitches,” Dr. Rasin said, “and we can focus on a specific sound within a background of many sounds. We should be mindful of how exquisite [this capability] is so we keep it safe to use for our whole lives.”

If your teen complains of ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, consider scheduling an evaluation. Tinnitus is sometimes the first symptom of damage and should serve as a warning sign that the ears have been exposed to too much sound. Another tip for parents who are smokers is this: Your habit can affect your child’s hearing.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].