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Wear Your Ear Protection

By Dr. Terri Lightbody


There are many things that can contribute to hearing loss. Some preventable, some not. Those things we have little control over include hereditary factors, congenital birth abnormalities, and head and neck injury due to accidents. One thing we can control is the amount of dangerous noise we expose ourselves to. Excessive noise exposure, even for short periods of time, can cause irreversible hearing loss in any one of any age.


Today, more than ever, there are a wide variety of hearing protectors available for all needs. Following are a few ideas that I would like to share to help you choose and use those devices effectively.


1. Hearing protectors must be comfortable and well-fitted. Custom molded ear protection is the most comfortable type there is. An Audiologist can take the ear impression/mold that the custom earplug is crafted from. The process can take up to 2 weeks from the impression to the finished product, but well worth the wait. Custom products are available for any type of ear protection including: hunting, skeet shooting, musicians hi-fidelity filtered earplugs, pilots, motorcycle enthusiasts, dentists and dental hygienists, machine operators, communication specialists, i-pods, cell phones, etc.


Non custom ear plugs are easier to obtain because they are available at most drug stores. They must be inserted properly (deep and snug) to work well and make sure they do not fall out. There are a number of 'over-the-counter' ear plugs available in different shapes and colors, however they are not as comfortable or as effective as the custom ear plugs.


Ear Muffs or ear phones are also available and generally chosen when a 'quick' fit is necessary. If the ear muffs are ergonomically fitted well, they can block sounds similarly to the in-the-ear plugs.However, the better fitted earplugs typically outperform the better earmuffs at the lower frequency end.Plus, earmuffs tend to be big and bulky making it harder to transport and store them.


2. Don't get hung up on the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). The NRR is the government mandated noise protection factor that must appear on all hearing protection devices. The NRR is intended to indicate the approximate reduction in decibels (dB) of the overall sound level that the device can provide. The NRR is based on laboratory-based tests that, in practice, represent what only a few of the most motivated and best-trained users can achieve. Small differences in NRR's (i.e., 4 or 5 dB) should be ignored. The more rigorous you are about properly fitting your ear protection, the closer you will get to the labeled NRR.


3. Listen to your ears and make sure you are getting the protection you need. If, immediately following a noise exposure you experience increased tinnitus (or the onset of tinnitus) and/or a slight stuffy feeling in your ears, the noise was too loud for your ears. Regular exposure of that nature will likely lead to hearing loss and permanent or increased tinnitus. Whenever you properly fit an earplug you will experience a change in the perception of your voice and body sounds. These sounds become fuller,boomier, or hollow-sounding and muffled. This is the occlusion effect and can be annoying but can be minimized by proper insertion and fit.


Once you have selected a hearing protection device and proper usage, the key is to have it available when needed. You can't always predict when you will be exposed to dangerous noise, so keep your ear protection handy. Life can be loud-remember your hearing protection!

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