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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/17/2010 4:03:48 PM ET 2010-08-17T20:03:48

While a new study about the rising numbers of kids with hearing loss has parents worried, there are things you can do to protect your child’s hearing. Julie Hauser, an audiologist and amplification coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, answered msnbc.com’s questions on how to determine how loud is too loud and how to teach your kids to listen to their favorite tunes safely.

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Q: The results of the new study are scary. Do you have any sense of what might have changed over the past decade that would lead to more hearing loss in kids?

A really large number of children are using iPods [and earbuds] regularly these days — I’ve seen estimates as high as 75 percent — and that may be what is causing the increase seen by these researchers.

Q: How can iPod use damage a child’s hearing?

What we know is that continued exposure to loud noise leads to hearing loss. And we know that a lot of children are turning the volume up to levels high enough to cause hearing loss. The damage that occurs is dependent on the volume and the length of time a child is listening.

Q: How loud is too loud?

OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has set standards for how loud noise can be in the workplace. Those standards can be a good guideline for parents. OSHA determined that you can safely listen to noise — or music — at 85 decibels for eight hours. But once you’ve gone above 85 decibels then the length of time you can be exposed to noise without harming your hearing decreases rapidly. The rule of thumb is that for every 5 decibels the noise level increases above 85 the safe listening time decreases by half. So, if you’re listening to something at 90 decibels then you can only listen for four hours.

Q: How can parents monitor — or even know — the decibel level coming into their children’s ears?

There are many things you can do. First of all, you might want to listen to the earphones yourself to see how loud the music is. If the level is greater than 85 decibels you would have difficulty hearing someone talk who is at about an arm’s length distance from you. If you find yourself raising your voice to have a conversation, the level is probably higher than 85 decibels. Another thing parents can do is to insist that their children take breaks from listening to their IPODs since the effect is cumulative.

Q: Does it matter whether your child uses ear buds or some other kind of head set?

The important thing is fit. If the ear buds don’t fit tightly, you can still hear background noise over the music. People tend to increase the volume until they manage to block out the background noise. Parents can also look into buying ear buds that have a volume lock.

Q: Will parents be able to spot early signs of hearing loss?

Probably not, unless their children complain about a ringing in their ears. Noise induced hearing loss initially involves primarily the higher pitches. So you can still hear most of the pitches in speech and it won’t be obvious that there is any loss.

Q: How does loud noise or music hurt hearing?

Loud noise damages the specialized sensory cells, called hair cells, in the inner ear. When these sensitive cells are damaged or destroyed, hearing suffers.

Q: You’ve talked about iPods and the damage they can do, but what about video games that come with loud explosions? Can they damage hearing, too?

It’s the same as with the music. The damage depends on intensity and duration of exposure. The explosions may be short duration, but if there are a lot of them, then their effects can add up.

Q: Much of the hearing loss we’ve been talking about takes years to develop. It can be hard to convince a child that something he can’t see is slowly chipping away at his hearing. How do you convince a child that listening to music loud can ruin his hearing?

It’s all about education. There are a couple of good websites that might help you make your point. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has an educational site: http://listentoyourbuds.org/. And the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has a site that has some nice activities and games: http://dangerousdecibels.org/.

Q: How concerned should we all be about this?

I’m worried we’re going to see a lot of people with significant hearing loss as these children grow up. Right now, you see people in their 60s with poor hearing. But I think some of these kids are going to have hearing difficulties when they’re a lot younger than that. Maybe even in their 40s if they continue going down that road.

Q: So hearing aids when people are in their 40s?

That’s a possibility.

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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