Why Children are More Susceptible to Hearing Loss than Adults

Little ears are particularly vulnerable to damage from excessive noise. Due to a narrower ear canal, sounds are amplified further for children, making a loud noise even louder. The risk of noise-induced hearing loss posed to young children is further increased as they are less able to identify a painfully loud sound and also are less able to understand where the noise may be coming from or what to do about it – in fact, you may have observed when a small child is faced with a loud noise they feel compelled to join in and add their own ear-piercing sounds to the cacophony. The auditory system in kids may also be more susceptible to damage simply due to its immature state of development. Babies, particularly those premature or of low birthweight, are particularly vulnerable to hearing damage from noise, as are children with learning and attention disorders, and children on medications with the potential to damage hearing (ototoxic medications).

Protecting your kid’s hearing is especially vital not only because it may be more vulnerable to damage but also because hearing plays an important part of learning and education, understanding and developing social behaviors, and being generally aware of their environment.

How loud is too loud?
Noise-induced hearing loss is a type of sensorineural hearing loss, which occurs when excessively loud noises damage the sensory hair cells of the inner ear. Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, such as birds and frogs, the ears of human beings are incapable of regenerating these cells – once these cells are caput, they’re caput (though scientists are currently working on this). As the hair cells of the inner ear are necessary for receiving the air vibrations we call sound, a loss of these cells can lead to permanent hearing loss of varying degrees.

Hearing damage can be cumulative over a period of time though extremely loud sounds can cause immediate damage. Unless your child has a propensity for watching jet plane take-offs at close range, the likely scenario is a slow build-up of damage to the hair cells from prolonged exposure to less obvious sources of excessive noise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a noise threshold of 80 decibels (dB) as the level at which potential hearing damage can occur – the longer the duration of exposure, the greater the risk of damage. For context, the sound of breathing may be between silent to 10dB; kitchen appliances may produce sounds around 80-90dB; a passing train observed from 50ft away is around 80dB; chain saws and rock concerts can often be around 120dB, the human pain threshold for noise; and watching that jet take off from 80ft away can expose your fascinated toddler to sounds of 150dB, the level at which an eardrum ruptures (so if we’re asking how loud is too loud, that is definitely too loud).

Toys, toys, toys!
The jet plane zooming off is an obvious source of ear-destroying noise; however, there are some sources which may be a little less apparent, including children’s toys. As children often like to play with their toys quite close to their faces, noisy toys that may seem harmless to an adult still have the potential to cause hearing damage to a young child. Some toys, in fact, can make noises exceeding 120dB. Sleep machines that produce white noise (or any other soporific sounds) also may cause hearing damage if played at too high a volume or placed very close to the infant’s head, especially if the track is played for the entire duration you’re hoping the child will sleep. Around the house parents should also be aware of the television or radio volume and of using noisy household items, such as kitchen blenders or vacuum cleaners, when the little one is nearby.

WHO states an increased rate of hearing impairment in the teenage population over the last 30 years. Sources of excess noise exposure in this age group can come from clubbing, music concerts, and listening to music at high volumes, whether through external speakers or earbuds and headphones. Because it’s not cool to wear earplugs to a Taylor Swift gig, and because it is cool to turn up the volume until everyone in a 20ft radius can hear Kanye through your headphones, adolescents are often at a high risk of noise-induced hearing damage.

Loud noise can impact learning, attention, memory and concentration
Apart from being even less likely to respond to your calling your teenager to clean up their dishes because they “didn’t hear you”, even low levels of sensorineural hearing loss have been linked to poorer academic performance and dysfunction of social and emotional development. Exposure to excess noise has also been investigated in its physiological effects on the human body, including an increase in the production of stress hormones, sleep disturbances, and increases to blood pressure and heart rate.

Various aspects of mental cognition may be adversely affected by noise exposure, such as attention, memory, and concentration; for a school-aged child, this can conceivably impact their performance in the classroom. For preschool-aged children, high noise levels in the home have been associated in delayed cognitive developments as otherwise expected for age.

Studies have found even an unborn fetus can be negatively affected by excessive noise exposure. Delays in growth and varying degrees of hearing impairment may result if the mother is around prolonged loud noises during pregnancy.

Steps you can take to protect your child’s hearing
Being aware of sources of excessive noise exposure around your infant, pre-schooler, or teenager, is an important first step. Consider taking action on a few things:

  • Remove the batteries from toys that produce very loud noises (this may potentially benefit everyone in the house, especially those who no longer want to hear the cackle of Tickle-Me-Elmo), or muffle the speakers with tape, cloth, or paper
  • Set maximum volume controls on devices that allow this setting
  • Teach your children to keep the volume at safe levels and to take regular breaks from sound exposure (music)
  • If using a white noise sleep machine, keep it at the lowest possible volume and set the machine away from the bed/crib
  • Invest in quality headphones or earbuds that reduce outside noise, meaning your child is more easily able to hear their music without needing to turn it up because of environmental interference
  • If your child will tolerate it, have them wear earmuffs or earplugs to events or gatherings with the potential for excessive noise

If you suspect your child has hearing loss, a visit to a hearing specialist can help to determine the degree of severity of any impairment and what steps can be taken to prevent further loss. Though earplugs to a friend’s 18th birthday at a club is the epitome of uncoolness, so is partial deafness in your mid-thirties. Look for ways to protect your child’s hearing and minimize their exposure to prolonged excessive noise, then they’ll be able to hear you whenever you call them downstairs to do the dishes.