Kid wearing headphones

Whether it’s loud music blaring through earbuds, the high-pitched scream of leaf blowers, or the many other sources of excessive sound in our everyday lives, Americans of all ages are willingly subjecting themselves to deafening levels of noise.

One thing is loud and clear: people either aren’t hearing or listening to the dire warnings about permanent damage to their hearing caused by unnecessary, yet all too common, exposure to excessive noise.

Noise-induced hearing loss is the second-most common form of hearing deficit after age-related hearing loss. But unlike the hearing loss that comes with age, the losses we suffer from exposure to noise are almost always preventable.

Whether it’s loud music blaring through earbuds, the high-pitched scream of leaf blowers and other power equipment, or the many other sources of excessive sound in our everyday lives, Americans of all ages are willingly subjecting themselves to deafening levels of noise. An estimated 12.5 percent of children and adolescents aged 6 to 19 years (some 5.2 million kids) and 17 percent of adults aged 20 to 69 years (about 26 million) have suffered permanent damage to our hearing from excessive — and unnecessary — exposure to noise.

It’s no surprise that loud sounds, whether they come in a single blast or over a sustained period, can damage our hearing, affecting the structures and nerve fibers in the inner ear that respond to sound. Noise-induced hearing loss cannot be medically or surgically corrected.

Though noise exposure can occur on the job most workplaces these days, under the scrutiny of occupational health and safety laws, provide employees with personal protection to safeguard the ears and prevent or mitigate damage. However, the reality is that much of the noise-induced hearing loss is the result of home-based and leisure-related activities such as playing loud music and video games, snowmobiling, woodworking, shooting at firing ranges. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 40 million adults who suffer hearing loss from noise, more than half of them report no on-the-job exposure to loud noise.

The World Health Organization released a special report on hearing earlier this year estimating that more than 50 percent of people ages 12 to 35 use smartphones and personal audio devices at volumes that pose a significant risk to their hearing. In addition, the report showed that nearly 40 percent of those who frequently visit entertainment venues and concerts are at similar risk for hearing loss.

Hearing loss from noise can happen instantly, like when a loud sound happens very close to your ears, or it can occur gradually. It can affect one or both ears. The louder the sound, the more damage it can cause to the sensitive structures of your inner ear, and the faster this damage can happen. If your hearing loss is gradual, you may not recognize it at first. You may have hearing loss if any of the following are true for you:

• Words sound muffled or difficult to hear or comprehend.

• You have trouble hearing high-pitched sounds.

• You have difficulty hearing in noisy places and social settings, such as restaurants and family gatherings.

• You have trouble understanding speech over the phone.

Remember, noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. Follow these basic tips:

• Lower the volume!

• Identify any sources of loud sounds and take steps to reduce exposure.

• Wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or protective earmuffs.

• Seek regular hearing evaluations by a licensed audiologist, especially if there is concern about potential hearing loss.

So, how loud is too loud? As a rule, sounds at or below 70 decibels are considered safe. Any sound at or above 85 decibels is more likely to damage your hearing over time. There are many downloadable phone apps and commercially available sound meters to measure decibel levels in your environment.

Henry Botzum, Au.D., is a licensed audiologist with Berkshire Health Systems.