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In a modern world where we’ve become more aware, conscientious and proactive about addressing health risks, such as protecting our eyes from over-exposure to direct sunlight, our ears continue to remain almost entirely undefended. Sadly, this is leading to hearing loss caused by long-term exposure to loud noise, as well as conditions such as tinnitus, which is continuing to increase in the UK at an alarming rate.
It could be argued that right now in the UK, there’s a cultural mindset you might simply describe as “believing our eyes, but not our ears”, which can be clarified with the use of two boldly contrasting statistics from recent years.
Firstly, in a survey taken in 2021 and reviewed by the Association of Optometrists, 46% of adults polled were found to own a pair of UV protective sunglasses for use in bright weather. In stunning contrast, in a “first of its kind” survey published by BMC Public Health in late 2020, it was revealed that a mere 2.1% of adults regularly used ear protection during loud recreational activities.
Meanwhile, a forecast updated in 2019 from the British Tinnitus Association revised its estimation from 1 in 10 people in the UK living with persistent tinnitus to 1 in 8. Put all these statistics in context, and it’s clear that, when it comes to protecting our ears from permanent damage — we’ve almost totally tuned out.
Understanding Tinnitus Symptoms
Simply put, tinnitus causes people to hear a persistent sound in their ears, even when there is no external source emitting that sound. People suffering from tinnitus can hear a range of noises, most commonly a ringing, buzzing, hissing or whooshing noise. The sound can be permanent or intermittent, and the volume can vary between episodes.
Hearing loss is often synonymous with tinnitus, as it seems that the brain sometimes compensates for the absence of heard sound by falsely perceiving non-existent “phantom” noise. Nevertheless, even people who enjoy normal levels of hearing can sometimes experience tinnitus.
The four most common causes of tinnitus are:
- Exposure to noise — Prolonged exposure to noise over and above the 85dB level (after which sound is deemed loud enough to eventually damage hearing) is a common cause of tinnitus — whether it’s sustained loud noise in the workplace, at large events like concerts or short, sharp, loud sounds like gunfire or machinery.
- Hearing loss — Although some people with hearing loss will never develop tinnitus, it remains the condition most commonly associated with it. Hearing loss is caused by factors such as ageing and exposure to loud noise or a combination of both.
- Blockage —Tinnitus can be triggered if the ear canal becomes blocked by excessive earwax or by fluid caused by an ear infection. Microsuction earwax removal treatment may resolve this issue.
- Medications —For some people, tinnitus can be a side effect of taking a wide range of medications, especially at high doses. These include certain types of analgesics, antibiotics, antivirals, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-malaria medications.
Of all the possible causes listed above, temporary, noise-induced tinnitus is something that the majority of us have experienced. It’s the ringing you hear after spending time at a loud music concert, nightclub, or event with a large, noisy crowd.
In fact, in a survey of nearly 4 thousand high school students, almost 75% admitted to experiencing noise-induced tinnitus as a direct consequence of exposure to loud noise. In fact, recent evidence points to adults across the age spectrum are exposing themselves to potentially harmful levels of noise recreationally.
The most recent factor playing a part in the prevalence of tinnitus caused by recreational noise has been the growing popularity of personal listening devices. Ever since technology transformed our phones into mobile music players, the use of headphones and earbuds has been steadily on the rise.
However, today’s headphones and earbuds can reach as loud as 100dB while projecting sound straight along the ear canal. The recommended safe level for personal listening devices should be no greater than 60% of the maximum volume.
Taking all this into account, it seems that awareness of noise-induced hearing loss and damage to the inner ear is worryingly low.
Protecting Your Hearing
Of course, when it comes to protecting our hearing, whether in the workplace or recreationally, the most effective method is to use earplugs and have an annual hearing test performed by a qualified audiologist. When it comes to preventing tinnitus, earplugs provide a practical, effective and inexpensive solution for shielding our ears. But recreationally, even amongst those aware of the risk of tinnitus, earplugs are still often perceived as impairing or devaluing musical events by reducing the full sonic impact of the experience.
This is why greater emphasis should be placed on educational initiatives to make people aware of how temporary noise-induced tinnitus often presents as an early warning sign that damage, which can lead to long-term hearing loss at a later stage, is occurring.
One issue associated with the negative perception of earplugs for recreational use is that people tend to think of earplugs in terms of the universal-fit, disposable types that are usually made of foam, silicone or wax. An earplug’s effectiveness is measured by attenuation (the extent to which they reduce sound), and standard disposable earplugs tend to reduce noise by around 30dB and lose clarity of sound in the mid to high frequencies.
Universally fitting, high-fidelity earplugs, on the other hand, decrease the decibel level with far greater frequency response to maintain audio clarity and, as such, are a much better choice for protecting your ears. And at prices ranging from around £15 to £50, they continue to provide relatively inexpensive but effective protection.
If you work in an environment where you need to regularly protect your ears from high-volume sound without loss of quality, the best option is to invest in a pair of custom moulded earplugs. Comfortable for long use, these will ensure an optimum attenuation level by offering a perfect fit, allowing a near-flat frequency response that allows for high-fidelity sound quality as well as protection.
For those sadly afflicted with permanent or frequent bouts of tinnitus, earplugs are also recommended, as the affliction can be exacerbated with continued exposure to loud environments. Tinnitus often increases noise sensitivity, making earplugs a must for some, yet standard universal-fit earplugs can create an unwelcome paradox, as blocking out exterior noise can actually make the perceived sound of tinnitus seem more acute.
The best tinnitus earplugs, recommended and prescribed by specialist audiologists at our specialist Regain Hearing clinics, have acoustic filters that can be adapted to suit different sonic backgrounds. This reduces noise volume and the sound frequencies that trigger or exacerbate tinnitus without muffling or distortion.
For those suffering from tinnitus as an aspect of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), there are also specialised hearing aids that can prove effective and highly beneficial. Hearing aids for tinnitus that are prescribed as a part of our groundbreaking tinnitus treatment come with inbuilt “tinnitus sound generators” (TSGs). This produces a background, white noise designed to soothe tinnitus symptoms, as they mitigate the perceived sounds by refocusing the mind beyond it.
Regain Hearing specialises in noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus treatment in London and Kent. We are award-winning auditory health professionals who take the time to diagnose your hearing issues with almost forensic levels of care to ensure we can always recommend the hearing treatment that works for you.
Contact your local Regain Hearing clinic in London and Kent for more information about hearing tests, and protect your hearing with our range of professional quality ear protection.