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The latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that one in five teenagers in the USA has significant hearing loss, and more and more teenagers are losing their hearing with each and every passing year.

Mp3 players guilty of hearing loss in one in five US teenagers

The doctors doing the research practice at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. They relied on data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) in 1988, 1994, and 2005.

Back in the 1980's, just one in seven teens had serious hearing loss. By 2005, one in five teens overall, and nearly one in three teens in poor families, suffered some degree of auditory impairment. In most cases, the teens lost hearing in just one ear, not both, and they continue to be able to hear and understand low frequencies, although they may have already--by the age of 19--lost the ability to hear high pitches.

The main culprit behind adolescent hearing loss seems to be the ubiquitous mp3 players operated in nearly every waking moment. The Brigham and Women's hospital researchers noted that the average teen listened to music 16 hours a day, and most turned their players to the highest volume setting available. Listening to loud music, however, is not the only cause of hearing loss in children and teens.

Music so loud it causes childhood hearing loss in 90% of cases

Ear infections, medications, allergies, congenital syphilis, frequent colds and flu, and foreign objects stuck in the ears were all found to cause hearing loss. Children with hearing loss were sometimes as young as six years old. Many children have normal hearing in at least one ear, however, and in nearly 90 per cent of cases of childhood hearing loss, neither the child nor parents know that high-frequency hearing loss or low-frequency hearing loss has occurred. Maybe kids are just so plugged into their mp3 players that they don't even know they can't hear what is not on their playlists!

The Massachusetts researchers also found that at any given time, about 1 in 25 children and teens has some form of temporary hearing loss, usually due to an earache or ear infection. Listening to loud music is most likely to cause loss of ability to hear high pitches first, and Mexican-American children, for reasons the researchers cannot yet explain, seem especially susceptible to losing their hearing.

Hearing loss in childhood has an impact on the rest of the child's life. There can be impaired learning in the classroom, impaired social interaction in play and in social events, and an inability to interact with bosses and coworkers on the job. Hearing loss that starts in childhood can get worse and worse throughout life, especially if the habits that cause it are not corrected.

This is why it is important for children to have their hearing checked on a regular basis, at least once a year. When a child or teen reports a sudden loss of hearing after attending a concert, or hearing an explosion or a gunshot, it's important to seek immediate medical care.

Medications to prevent swelling and inflammation of the ear canal can prevent traumatic hearing loss from becoming permanent, but they have to been given in the first few days after the event. Simply turning down the volume on the mp3 player, however, may prevent chronic hearing loss from following a child the rest of his or her life.

  • Shargorodsky J, Curhan SG, Curhan GC, Eavey R. Change in prevalence of hearing loss in US adolescents. JAMA. 2010 Aug 18,304(7):772-8.

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