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Why you should not use headphones for more than an hour at a stretch


Any sound more than 90db poses a risk.

Recently, Nasreen, who is in her mid-thirties, discovered that she could not bear to hear anyone shouting and would tell people at work and home to speak at a lower volume.

Why? The noise hurt her.

While this might be shrugged off as a rare occurrence, just take a look around at earphones, that went from being a mere accessory into a ubiquitous lifeline for our entertainment.

Earphones have become popular among all age groups and are becoming an increasingly popular sight. Yes, they look cool, but it has dangerous implications on your hearing, with the damage being temporary and in some cases, permanent. Dr Shyam Anil Pai, specialist ENT surgeon at Aster Clinic, Al Nahda, says that everywhere you look - on the streets, commuting by metro or cab, in the gym, etc - everyone is using headphones or earphones connected to their mobiles or portable listening devices.

"It is safe to use earphones or headphones. It is the volume of the music or audio played on these devices that cause harm and damages the inner ear. Individuals commonly speak at 60dB (decibel) and music should be played at a maximum of 80dB, and never exceed 85dB or more," he said.

Exposure to noise levels of 100dB for more than 15 minutes is extremely harmful. However, irrespective of the noise level, it is recommended to use earphones or headphones for not more than an hour at a stretch. 

Dr Mohammad Samir Youssef, otolaryngology specialist at Al Tadawi Medical Centre, said: "The volume level and length of listening period are important when it comes to earphone usage. As such, it is an inverse relationship between how long and how loud. If you are listening for a period of time longer than 90 minutes, the volume should be reduced. The longer you listen, the lower the volume should be. 

"Unfortunately, a large number of teenagers and young people are suffering from NIHL (Noise-Induced Hearing Loss), and thorough examination, I figure the main reason is overexposure to loud music."

A similar caution is given by Dr Taha Mohammed Abdelaal, otorhinolaryngology consultant at NMC Royal Hospital, Khalifa City, who advises minimising the risk of damage to the ears and treating it with care.

"Use of earphones or headphones is not 100 per cent safe; while these little sonic feeding tubes can entertain us endlessly, they also cause hearing damage. With a little effort, you can minimise the risk," Dr Abdelaal said.

"Prolonged exposure to noise or high-frequency sound is the problem. It does not matter what device you are using: headsets, wireless headphones, earphones.etc. We have seen patients frequently at the ENT Clinic, not necessarily with hearing loss, but with tinnitus, hearing discomfort or a gradual decrease in hearing, which is considered an early stage in hearing loss."

There's also the near-endless use of mobile phones in today's busy world, with some people talking on the phone for several hours a day.

Dr Ashwini Kumar Mehta, ENT specialist at Zulekha Hospital Sharjah, said: "There are patients who come in with complaints of difficulty in hearing following prolonged exposure to music/sound. There is also a general shift in the average age of patients who suffer from hearing loss.

"Earlier, hearing loss was observed in older people but now we see youngsters increasingly coming in. This could be attributed to prolonged and continuous exposure to noise/music. It is interesting to note that this ear pain is not due to any sound energy from the headphones, but because of constant straining of the temporomandibular joint (the joint of the jaw bone which is in front of the ear) due to constant talking!"

Dr Mehta says that headphones or earphones are safe to use, provided they are not used for prolonged periods and the sound is not of high intensity.

A rough guide for the correct loudness or intensity of sound coming through earphones is that it should not be audible to any other person. There is a category of people whose ears are very sensitive to sound - labelled "green ears". These can get damaged with even mild exposure to loud sound. One should not sleep with earphones on, as continuous exposure to sound can damage hearing and also cause impaction of wax in the ear canal and external ear infections. 

Current trends in the UAE show more people owning smartphone. This is rather significant compared to 15 years ago, says Dr Pai. "Even young children today have access to mobile phones. So, greater awareness needs to be created about the potential adverse health impacts associated with their overuse. In my daily practice, I mainly encounter patients in the age group of 20-35 years who have hearing problems attributable to excess mobile phone use. This is either in the form of tinnitus (ringing or whistling noise in ears) or high-frequency hearing loss. By curbing prolonged mobile phone use, the further deterioration of hearing is prevented." 


Use of wireless Bluetooth 

Bluetooth earphones are considerably better because they emit far less radiation than mobile phones. However, the level of noise the ear is exposed to is still a concern, says Dr Pai. 

Dr Abdelaal also advises that wireless bluetooth earphones are beneficial compared to direct use of the device, lessening radiation. However, prolonged use of wireless earphones can are risky due to the high noise exposure. 

Any sound intensity of 85db or less is considered safe; however, more than 90dB imposes a risk. Nowadays, most music devices emit sounds of 95-110dB.

The exposure to this high-frequency sound for long periods causes damage to hearing receptors, known as hair cells.

There is no specific treatment for this kind of hearing loss, but patients are advised to avoid noise exposure as much as possible and go for regular follow-ups for assessment of hearing.

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