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One in 10 Americans has a hearing loss that affects his or her ability to understand normal speech. Age-related hearing loss is the most common cause of this condition and is more prevalent than hearing loss caused by excessive noise exposure. However, exposure to excessive noise can damage hearing, and it is important to understand the effects of this kind of noise, particularly because such exposure is avoidable.

How can I tell the noise is dangerous?

People differ in their sensitivity to noise. As a general rule, noise may damage your hearing if you are at arm’s length and have to shout to make yourself heard. If noise is hurting your ears, your ears may ring, or you may have difficulty hearing for several hours after exposure to the noise. Noise is, by intensity, measured in decibels; pitch, measured in hertz or kilohertz; and duration.

Can noise affect more than my hearing?

A ringing in the ears, called tinnitus, commonly occurs after noise exposure, and often becomes permanent. Some people react to loud noise with anxiety and irritability, an increase in pulse rate and blood pressure, or an increase in stomach acid. Very loud noise can reduce efficiency in performing difficult tasks by diverting attention from the job.

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How can I protect myself against noise?

Wear hearing protectors, especially if you must work in an excessively noisy environment. You should also wear them when using power tools, noisy yard equipment, or firearms, or riding a motorcycle or snowmobile. Hearing protectors come in two forms: earplugs and earmuffs.

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Earplugs are small inserts that fit into the outer ear canal. They must be sealed snugly so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked. An improperly fitted, dirty, or worn-out plug may not seal properly and can result in irritation of the ear canal. Plugs are available in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit individual ear canals and can be custom-made. For people who have trouble keeping them in their ears, the plugs can be fitted to a headband. Just as sunglasses help vision in very bright light, so hearing protectors enhance speech understanding in very noisy places. Even in a quiet setting, a normal-hearing person wearing hearing protectors should be able to understand a regular conversation.

How can I tell if my hearing is damaged?

Decibels (dB) measure the intensity of sound. The scale runs from the faintest sound the human ear can detect, which is labeled 0 dB, to more than 180 dB, the noise at a rocket pad during launch. Most experts agree that continual exposure to more than 85 decibels is dangerous. Recent studies show an alarming increase in noise-related hearing loss in young people.

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