That irritating ringing noise you get after seeing a band perform usually goes away within a few hours. But sometimes it doesn’t, and can last for days, years or even the rest of your life. Tinnitus is the name for hearing sound when there isn’t any, and can be a symptom of hearing loss or ear injury. It affects about one in five people, or up to 30 per cent of adults.
According to a report published in February last year by the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to excessive volume from personal music players and exposure to damaging sound levels at gigs, karaoke rooms, sports events and nightclubs. In 2010, Chinese University estimated that over 200,000 people in Hong Kong suffer from moderate to severe tinnitus – and the number is rising.
A recent study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong highlighted the need for hearing health awareness among young people. Researchers from the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery studied students from 10 secondary schools between last October to February this year. "Out of the 3,783 questionnaire responses, over 30 per cent of students failed the 13-item screening questionnaire," revealed the department's Kammy Yeung, adding, "33.1 per cent of students reported tinnitus in one or both ears."
The findings were linked to audio device use: 41 per cent used one for more than one hour per day, while five per cent listened to their device for more than five hours.
That constant hum, drone or high-pitched sound can make it difficult to sleep in a silent room, and can cause constant irritation in daily life. In March, Tom Bellamy from the British rock band Losers wrote an account about what it was like living with tinnitus, which he developed while recording a loud song. “As a kid, the ringing you get after a gig is a badge of honour, a sort of boastful trophy to wear with pride the next morning … The thing is, that ringing is a sign from your body, telling you that something is wrong.”
There’s a long-held belief among many doctors that there’s no medical treatment for the telltale tinnitus ringing, and any treatment is not yet widely available. To prevent tinnitus, don’t go back for a long time after a gig and protect your ears by turning down music or wearing earplugs. And if you do hear a ringing, get in touch with your doctor, who will refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Decibels (dB) are used to determine how loud a sound is: the higher the number, the higher the sound. A pin-drop is about 15 dB, and normal conversation would be about 50 dB, while a hairdryer is around 85. A motorbike comes in at 100 dB, a rock concert at 105 dB, a nearby chainsaw is about 110 dB, and a plane taking off is around 140 dB. If a sound is loud enough, it can rip a hole in your eardrum: exposure to over 120 dB can cause instant damage to your hearing.
Unless you live in a warzone or near an active volcano, you’re unlikely to hear anything that loud. But exposure to relatively high noise levels for a prolonged period can be just as damaging. According to the US Centre for Disease Control, you shouldn’t expose yourself to a full-volume rock gig for more than five minutes. Any longer and you risk hearing damage. In Hong Kong, it’s rare to see even band members wearing ear protection, let alone the fans, but earplugs are a must if you want to still enjoy music when you’re a grandparent.
Here are some steps to protect your hearing:
If you’re at a gig, the speakers are going to be where it’s noisiest so try to avoid standing near them. If you’re walking and a builder is using a jackhammer, cross the road or put your fingers in your ears.
Use hearing protection when loud noise is unavoidable. You can buy cheap, foamy or plastic earplugs for about HK$20 from most Watsons or Mannings if you only go to shows occasionally. If you’re a regular at gigs, consider getting a pair of custom-made moulded silicone earplugs. They’re expensive (around HK$1,000), but they’re a worthwhile, potentially ear-saving investment.
Turn the volume down. If you’re listening to music in a car, on a stereo in your bedroom, or from your phone or mp3 player, take control over the volume. If other people on the MTR can hear sound leaking from your earphones, they’re too loud. Noise-cancelling headphones are pricey, but the benefits include not needing to turn up the volume and better sound quality.
Get rid of earwax. A 2008 study of 833 students at a Tsing Yi college, the Church of Christ in China Yenching College, found that a third of those who believed they had hearing problems actually just had waxy ears. If you suspect that your ears are clogged with yellow goop, don’t be tempted to stick a swab in there – you’ll just jam the wax further into your ear. Go and see the doctor, who will get in there and scoop the gunge out safely.