People who play video games may be risking irreversible hearing loss and/ or tinnitus—persistent ringing/buzzing in the ears—a new study highlights. The study, published in BMJ Public Health, reviewed 14 studies from nine countries which involved more than 50,000 people in all.

While headphones, earbuds and music concerts have been recognised as sources of potentially unsafe sound levels, relatively little attention has been paid to the effects of video games, including e-sports, on hearing loss, say the researchers. “Gamers often play at high-intensity sound levels and for several hours at a time,” they add. One estimate indicates that there were over 3 billion gamers worldwide in 2022. 

“This study is very important in today’s time because most of us, knowingly or unknowingly, are being exposed to (such) noise, and that is one of the major reasons that causes hearing loss and gives us tinnitus,” says Dr Neha Sood, associate director, ENT and cochlear implant, BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi. “Gaming is becoming increasingly popular over the past few years. Youngsters, and even adults, are gaming online or on mobiles using headphones, and that is increasing the occurrences of hearing loss,” she adds. 

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). Sounds at or below 70 dB are considered safe. As a comparison, a whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation about 60 dB, and a motorcycle engine running is about 95 dB. Loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your ears. Sound gets louder as one moves closer to the source and softer as one moves away. Being far away from a loud noise lowers the risk of damage to the hearing. The impact of sound increases when exposed for a longer duration. A single loud burst can equally damage hearing than over a sustained period of time.

“Having said that, kids and teens are often exposed to noise levels that could permanently harm their hearing over a period of time. Unsafe sound levels as in video games, loud music (at concerts or listening to with earphones), motorised sporting events like car races, movie theaters, firecrackers and even some children’s toys, can cause hearing loss when exposed over a long period of time at a regular basis,” says Dr Atul Mittal, principal director and head, department of ENT, Fortis, Gurugram.

Not music to your ears

Over 5% of the world’s population – or 430 million people – require rehabilitation to address their disabling hearing loss, as per the World Health Organization (WHO). These include 34 million children. It is estimated that by 2050, over 700 million people – or 1 in every 10 people – will have disabling hearing loss, the WHO adds.

According to the WHO, disabling hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 35 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear. Nearly 80% of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle- income countries. The prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, among those older than 60 years, over 25% are affected by disabling hearing loss, the world health body adds.

The issue of hearing loss is getting bigger day by day. “According to WHO, India has some 63 million cases of hearing loss. The habit of using headphones, which increased during Covid, has caused people to end up with earaches, minor headaches and hearing loss. I cannot say right now that the number of kids landing with hearing loss has increased but this population who is constantly either on Bluetooth headphones, air pods or earphones will land with the issue 

five to 10 years down the line. And this issue is gender agnostic as of now,” says Dr Shama Kovale, consultant, ENT, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Mumbai. 

So, what are the warning signs of hearing loss and when should one seek medical help? According to Dr Shikha Sharma, head of department,  ENT, Yatharth Hospital, Noida Extension, common indicators include difficulty understanding speech, particularly in noisy environments, asking others to repeat themselves frequently, turning up the volume on electronic devices, and experiencing ringing or buzzing sounds in the ears (tinnitus). 

Individuals may also notice a gradual decline in their ability to hear high-pitched sounds or voices, as well as difficulty following conversations, especially over the phone. In children, signs of hearing loss may manifest as delayed speech and language development or difficulty learning in school. “If any of these symptoms are present, it is advisable to seek medical help promptly. Additionally, sudden or severe hearing loss, ear pain, drainage from the ear, or dizziness warrant immediate evaluation,” adds Dr Sharma.

In babies and children, signs of hearing loss may vary according to age, as per Dr Mitul C Bhatt, a noted ENT specialist based in Mumbai. “Babies with hearing loss may not startle in response to loud noises, fail to turn toward the source of a sound after six months of age, lack single-word speech by age one, or not react to their name being called,” the doctor explains.

Older children with hearing loss may frequently say “huh,” have delayed speech development compared to their peers, exhibit unclear speech, struggle to follow instructions, or increase the volume on televisions or tablets, Dr Bhatt adds.

Safe listening habits

There are various ways to adopt safe listening habits. “Use headphones wisely, invest in good noise cancellation headphones. Listen at a level of 60% volume for not more than 60 minutes a day. Preferably use wired headphones, prefer headphones over earphones, and protect your ears at loud events by using ear muffs or cotton plugs at least. You can use apps which can monitor your sound levels. Get regular hearing check-ups done at least once a year,” says Dr Kovale of Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital.

Dr Sharma of Yatharth Hospital adds: “Individuals should be mindful of the volume levels when using personal audio devices such as smartphones and MP3 players, keeping them at a moderate level and taking regular breaks to rest their ears. Utilising noise-cancelling headphones can help reduce the need to increase volume levels in noisy environments.”

Additionally, maintaining a safe distance from sources of loud noise, such as speakers at concerts or machinery in industrial settings, can minimise exposure. “When engaging in activities with potentially harmful noise levels, wearing hearing protection such as earplugs or earmuffs is crucial,” offers Dr Sharma. 

As far as prevention is concerned, the most important thing is for people to be educated, feel doctors. “Everybody needs to be educated that this exposure to loud intensity sound is hazardous. Most people don’t realise that. And that is why they continue that exposure for prolonged periods of time,” says Dr Sood of  BLK-Max Super Speciality Hospital. 

Dr Bhatt of Mumbai agrees: “It’s essential for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals to educate children and young adults about the potential risks associated with these activities and encourage the use of hearing protection devices whenever necessary to prevent hearing loss.”

One should seek medical help if they experience any signs or symptoms of hearing loss as discussed earlier. “Additionally, if parents notice any concerning signs in their child’s hearing development, such as delayed speech or unresponsiveness to sounds, they should consult a healthcare professional. It’s important to seek timely medical assistance to address any potential hearing issues and prevent further complications,” Dr Bhatt adds.

Play Safe

  • Choose headphones over earbuds
  • Follow the 60:60 rule – listen at 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day
  • Take periodic breaks of 15–20 minutes to allow your ears to recover
  • Set personal listening device volume limits
  • Never listen at 100% volume level
  • When listening to music through headphones or earbuds, keep the volume level low enough so that you can hear people speaking around you
  • Wear ear plugs when attending concerts or sporting events to limit noise by 15 to 35 decibels
  • Wear protective earmuffs when working with loud machinery
  • Don’t stick anything into your ear canal, including cotton swabs or hairpins. These objects could become lodged in your ear canal or cause an eardrum rupture

Dr Atul Mittal, principal director and head of department, ENT, Fortis, Gurugram

2024-03-03T03:11:25Z dg43tfdfdgfd