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Once It's Gone, It's Gone
by Julia Casey
1 I'm a normal high school kid—that is, I like listening to music. Until about a year ago, I always liked listening to it loud. Loud enough that it filled up my head and pulsed through my body, so the boundary between me and the music disappeared. I've listened to countless hours of music—vibrant music pouring into my ears from MP3 players, washing over me from car speakers, or blasting at me from gigantic speakers at concerts.
2 But there's something about me that makes me not so normal. I have a hearing loss and a constant ringing in my ears that, unless some medical miracle happens, I'll suffer from these impairments forever. My ear problems are so severe that I feel I need to warn you: You have to protect your hearing as much as you can.
3 I'll tell you about my own experience, and I'll give you some scientific information.
4 I convinced my parents to get me an MP3 player when I was eleven. When I was fifteen, I started going to concerts at indoor arenas and large amphitheaters. At the big concerts, you could always find me next to the speakers. A year later I was also going to all-ages shows at clubs—and you know where I'd park myself. After a concert or a club gig, I'd occasionally notice ringing in my ears afterward. But by the next day, it would be gone. Yet that post-event ringing gradually got louder and louder, and it took longer and longer to disappear. Then one-day last year I realized that the ringing was 24/7, except when I was asleep. I also had to face the fact that, more and more often, I was asking, "What did you say?" in conversations.
5 My parents took me to a hearing specialist. The diagnosis was pretty straightforward: In both ears, I'd lost some hearing at one range and a lot of hearing at another. The constant ringing was connected to the hearing loss. Of course, I asked the doctor, "So what can you do about it?" Her response—"The hearing loss is irreversible"—wasn't the answer I was expecting.
6 How had something as innocent as music done so much damage? Here's a brief explanation.
7 There are hair cells in the inner ear that are involved in your ability to hear. Excessively loud noise can kill these cells, and the longer you're exposed to the loud noise, the greater the number of cells that are destroyed. The greater the number of cells that are destroyed, the worse your hearing gets. Once those hair cells have died, they stay dead; so your hearing isn't likely to get better in the future.
8 Genetics—that is, the genes you've inherited—may play a role in how your ears react to loud sounds. But whether or not you're at risk of damaging your hearing depends mainly on two things: how loud the music or other noise is and how long you're exposed to it. The unit used to measure sound level is called a decibel. Experts say that noise-induced hearing loss can happen from hearing a very loud sound (120 decibels or higher) once, or from hearing a sound at 85 decibels or higher for an extended period of time. To put this in perspective, look at the decibel levels of a few different situations.
9 The chart helps to explain why it's not just older people who have hearing problems these days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 12.5% of Americans between the ages of 6 and 19 (over five million kids and teens!) have noise-induced hearing loss.
10 At this point, your eyes may be glazing over from all the technical information. And you may be ready to argue, "But music isn't music unless it's loud and reverberating through your body—just like you experienced, Julia." Or you may say, "But, Julia, it's only 12.5% of all kids who have hearing problems due to excessively loud noise. This means that plenty of kids listen to loud music without any bad consequences."
11 My reply to you is, "Are you willing to risk it, to take the chance?" Because you just might lose the gamble and end up with hearing loss, or ringing in your ears, or both. Because of the hearing loss, I can't make out certain sounds, and that sometimes makes it hard for me to understand what is being said. (I hesitate to keep asking people to repeat things.) It's even harder to understand everything when there's background noise, like in the cafeteria or a fast food place. As for my future, I worry about what will happen when I have a job. What if I can't clearly understand directions?
12 If I could turn back the clock, I'd treat my hearing with the respect it deserves. After all, a hearing problem isn't as easily corrected as a vision problem. And once you've lost your hearing, you don't get it back.
13 So think in terms of prevention—just like wearing seatbelts or using sunscreen—and think of me as your "anti-example." If you pay attention to the sounds around you, maybe you'll still have a solid hearing when you're twenty . . . or forty . . . or sixty.
Save Your Hearing
-Avoid loud noise. If you have to be around it, limit the amount of time.
-Whenever possible, turn down the volume.
-Wear earplugs if the music is louder than 85 decibels. How can you tell? It's over 85 decibels if you have trouble hearing what the person next to you is saying.
-Wear earplugs the right way so they'll do their job. Make sure they make an airtight seal when they're in the ear opening.
-When you listen to music devices (like MP3 players) with earphones, don't turn up the volume higher than 50-60%. Also, limit the listening time to 60 minutes a day (or less).
-After you've been around a really loud noise, give your ears a long break of quiet time afterward so they can recover. This will reduce the risk of permanent damage.