Everyone is exposed to sounds around them on a daily basis. Some of them are part of life and pleasant to listen to, however, others may be harmful and cause hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when a person is exposed to high noise levels, resulting in damage to structures or nerve fibres in the inner ear that respond to sound. In South Africa, it is common in the mining industry, but it is also caused by earphone usage as a result of long or repeated exposure to loud sounds or music.
It can develop gradually from continually being exposed to loud sounds, or immediately from a one-time exposure such as an explosion. Noise-induced hearing loss can affect people of all ages, as being exposed to harmful noise can happen at any age.
Earphones … need we say more?
Herman Moloi from the Free State says he is unaware of the long-term effects of high-volume earphone usage, however, he is concerned at times when he starts to experience minor pain in his ears.
“I use earphones every day because I enjoy reading and typing while listening to soft music. I use them at maximum volume when I am not doing anything.
Dealing with different types of hearing loss
Nomfundo Moroe, an audiologist at Rhodes University who is also an associate professor and a lecturer in the department of speech therapy and audiology, looks at hearing and hearing loss in the workplace. She focuses on the mining sector because of the noise that is prevalent in the industry.
“There are two types of noise-induced hearing loss: occupational and recreational. Occupational noise-induced hearing loss is due to loud exposure to noise in the workplace. The other type is recreational, which occurs in populations not exposed to occupational noise. It is seen mostly in young people, including children as young as 10–15 years who are constantly using headphones to listen to loud music,” says Moroe.
She explains how miners were impacted by their working environment.
“I used to get patients with hearing loss who were referred by their mines or hearing aids. Mining is a noisy occupation. They use equipment like big trucks, hammers, grilles, and all that produce noise that they cannot avoid. They are potentially more likely to develop hearing loss if they are not offered sufficient and effective hearing protection.
“There can be many effective forms of hearing protection available, but it should be ensured and confirmed that they are effective and achieve what they are intended to do,” she says.
Read the signs
Moroe says the first sign of exposure to excessive noise leading to noise-induced hearing loss, is tinnitus. Tinnitus is a ringing or buzzing noise in the ears. Depending on the amount and type of exposure to the noise experienced, one may begin to not hear clearly, causing diminished hearing.
“When exposed to noise, hair cells start getting damaged. Once they get damaged to a point where they can no longer move to pass on signals, it means a person has lost their hearing, and it is not repairable, Moroe explains.
“Noise-induced hearing loss is currently incurable and irreversible. It can however be prevented with proper and effective hearing conservation programs. A person is able to work in a loud environment for a long time with no harm to the ears, but because of poor implementations or poor usage of hearing protection devices, they get exposed to noise because it takes quite some time before they realise they have an ear problem. When they do, it is too late because it is incurable,” she says.
Noise-induced hearing loss is a permanent condition. People should be educated more and encouraged to protect their ears because once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed.
She warns that recreational hearing loss could cause a generation of young people who have not started working to already be exposed to noise and get a disability.
“These are some of the consequences, as we are not educated and do not really think about them because noise-induced hearing loss does not happen immediately and one does not feel any immediate pain when exposed to noise. Consequences are not immediate, so people tend to take it lightly or be totally unaware until the effects kick in,” she cautions.
Teach kids the warning signs
Mxolisi Sibande from Mpumalanga who is required to use headphones every day in his working environment, says, “I use headphones for a minimum of approximately six hours daily.”
“I have concerns that high volumes can cause hearing loss over time, even if it won’t be a complete loss of hearing but a certain percentage might be lost. I sometimes suspect that the headaches I get, are a result of using earphones at high volumes for a long period of time.”
Recreational noise-induced hearing loss is scattered among different age groups, especially the youth. It can have a huge impact on the economy if a majority of people end up being unable to work because they endured hearing loss at a young age.
Moroe says awareness must be raised in different sectors and different strategies should be analysed to see if they are really effective. She adds that it hinges on raising awareness and practising primary prevention at a community level through schools, parents, and the elderly.
“Awareness is education. It should be engaged in community-based activities and be considered the same way as teaching about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse because it is also a critical issue. We should be more aware of the long-term consequences.
“We should start with the young ones. If we can get to a point where it becomes part of the curriculum, it would bring a great difference in reducing noise-induced hearing loss in the future,” she advises.
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