Hindered by headphones

We bought ear pods for our daughter on her 16th birthday so that she could conveniently attend virtual classes during the lockdown.

Published: 21st July 2021 06:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd July 2021 07:23 AM   |  A+A-

ILLUSTRATION: Soumyadip sinha

Express News Service

CHENNAI: We bought ear pods for our daughter on her 16th birthday so that she could conveniently attend virtual classes during the lockdown. However, it turned into a nightmare for the entire family,” shares Lekha Prasad, as she talks about her 17-year-old daughter Tanmayee’s ordeal with noise-induced hearing loss. 

Tanmayee’s regular day included attending her school’s online classes, private language and music classes, listening to music and watching her favourite shows on her phone. “used to wear the headphones for at least 10 hours a day. She always turned the volume high while using her phone. We could hear the lectures, the music she listened to even while she wore the earbuds. Except for the occasional reminder to reduce the volume, we didn’t think too much about it. This was until she started complaining of shooting ear pain and dizziness while waking up.

She also turned short-tempered and was often irritable; she slowly started complaining that most sounds and speeches to her were muffled,” Lekha bleakly says. After a series of consultations, Tanmayee was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL). “She had trouble hearing and understanding speech when someone was talking at a normal level and even struggled with soft sounds,” she details.

With her auditory nerve and hair cells (primary components of the ear which help in hearing) damaged, Tanmayee has currently been prescribed hearing aids. “Her hearing loss is severe and it cannot be reversed. However, the use of aides seems to be helping her. She is also undergoing therapy to help her deal with this sudden turn of events. It’s been a horrific time for our family, to watch our child lose her hearing ability because of loud noise and over usage of headphones. It’s time we all become more mindful of the damage it can cause,” she shares.

Dr Deepan M, an audiologist, who runs a private ear clinic, explains that Tanmayee’s case is not an exception. “There’s been an increase in the number of people (both adults and children) complaining of hearing loss — from mild to severe, and ear infection, in the past year. While the causes for hearing loss may vary from natural ageing process, genetic factors and exposure to loud noises, a chunk of recent cases have been due to increased use of headphones,” he reports. The year-long work from home situation for adults and online classes for children and teens have prolonged the use of headphones, furthering this crisis.

The WFH side-effects
For Suraj Kulkarni, who works in a managerial role at a city-based software company, attending long hours of meeting and conference calls with his headphones plugged in, caused an early loss in hearing.
“I have been suffering from mild noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) (between 26 to 40 hearing loss decibels) for the last couple of months. At work, we have online meetings for about seven to eight hours, every day. Without adequate breaks in between, we are glued to our laptops and have our earphones plugged in constantly. For me, it started with an ear infection and excessive secretion of ear wax. It slowly snowballed into pain and when it became unbearable, I visited a doctor. I was diagnosed with mild hearing loss. My heart sank,” recalls the 30-year-old, who is currently under treatment.

Like Suraj, Spoorthi, another IT professional, shares that her hearing ability went for a toss amid the pandemic. “I have always enjoyed listening to music with my headphones on. However, the usage was in adequate intervals. But with work demanding us to attend audio and video conferences and meetings, we have had no choice but to be on calls throughout the day. With other family members also working from home, it isn’t always possible to switch to speaker mode. This caused overuse of headphones due to which I developed a severe ear infection. But I am thankful that it didn’t induce hearing loss. I was treated for it with medication and it helped. Now, I have made a conscious decision to stay away from my headphones whenever possible,” she informs.

Cases on the rise
In a recent First World Report on Hearing released by the World Health Organization, projections estimate that nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide or 1 in 4 people will be living with some degree of hearing loss by 2050. At least 700 million of these people will require access to ear and hearing care and other rehabilitation services unless action is taken. Around 1 billion young people are estimated to be at risk of potentially life-altering hearing loss due to loud noise exposure. WHO defines this as being caused by either sustained exposure to moderately loud noise (85 decibels for eight hours) or short-term exposure to very loud noise (15 minutes listening to sound above 100 decibels).

“The indications of such hearing loss include, muffled hearing, difficulty in attending calls and understanding telephonic conversations, turning up the television volume, and so on. While structural abnormalities of the ear and genetics could play a part in hearing loss, noise-induced hearing loss (wherein you are exposed to a loud sound for a repeated period), seems to be on an increase. The WHO has estimated that one-third of all hearing loss cases are due to high noise exposure,” notes Ramya Sudersonam, audiologist and speech-language pathologist, Gleneagles Global Health City.

Most hearing loss is permanent and cannot be reversed. However, it is preventable. It is important to protect the ability while you can, she advises. “Knowledge about how much noise is going to affect you, the maximum output levels and exposure can go a long way in keeping hearing loss at bay. Annual ENT evaluation and strict hearing conservation programmes in workplaces too can help in preventing hearing loss,” she says.

How to prevent hearing loss 

while using headphones

Safe limits
Most smartphones have settings that allow one to navigate and set a maximum volume. If you try increasing the volume, a message pops up about the breach of the safe limit. So, tapping on the settings can help in a great way to ensure a safe and enjoyable listening time. 

Limit Exposure
You can listen to music at 102 decibels, which is the average maximum volume on a smartphone for around five to ten minutes before it becomes dangerous. Ensure to set a time limit while using your device to protect your hearing.

The 60/60 rule
Experts and medical practitioners advocate the 60/60 rule to prevent hearing loss from headphone use. “The idea is 60 per cent music volume for 60 minutes. A moderate volume range for a limited time with breaks afterwards lowers chances of damage,” shares Ramya Sudersonam.

Over-the-ear head phones for the win!
Over-the-ear headphones in comparison to the regular inner-ear earbuds are far safer, tell experts. “The sound from the device to the eardrums reaches in a far more indirect way, making it safer,” says Deepan. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t harmful if loud music is played.

Volume down
According to research, noise up to about 80 decibels can be listened to for over 20 hours without risk of damage. This is about 60 per cent of the volume on your phone. Keeping the sound level between 60 to 85 decibels can minimise the damage the ear is exposed to. Exposure to sounds 85 decibels and above can damage your hearing. Usage of headphones while listening to music at around 100 decibels can be restricted to about 10-15 minutes. Keeping the volume-controlled is one of the key ways to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.

Clean the buds
Sanitising the earphones prevents the build-up of infection-causing bacteria, sweat and dead skin.

Navigate volume 
People often have the habit of turning up the volume when their surroundings are noisy (A noisy, traffic blocked road; on a loud aircraft, the market…). During such instances, louder music usually allows one to drown the noise, making the listening process easier. However, raising the volume to higher decibel levels can prove to be harmful, increasing the chances of hearing damage. So, instead of increasing the volume to drown background noise, one can switch to noise-cancelling headphones.

With virtual meetings and classes offering little to no relief from headphone usage, knowing about safe sound levels, taking frequent breaks and switching to noise-cancelling devices seem to be the only options to prevent hearing loss


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