Speaking and listening are instrumental for effective communication. McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty members Barry Hirsch, MD (top), professor of otolaryngology and communication sciences and disorders and neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of UPMC’s Ear and Hearing Center, and chairman of the hearing committee for the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, and Clark Rosen, MD (bottom), director of the UPMC Voice Center and associate professor of otolaryngology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, offer several reminders for protecting your hearing and your voice from damage.
Every day, we experience sound in our environment, such as the sounds from television and radio, household appliances, and traffic. Normally, we hear these sounds at safe levels that do not affect our hearing. However, when we are exposed to harmful noise—sounds that are too loud or loud sounds that last a long time—sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, causing noise-induced hearing loss. These sensitive structures, called hair cells, are small sensory cells that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, our hair cells cannot grow back. To protect these hair cells, a good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are “too loud” and “too close” or that last “too long.”
"I wear ear protection when I do my lawn," says Dr. Hirsch. That's good, because a power lawn mower easily cranks out 90 decibels of noise; long-term exposure to levels above 85 decibels can cause permanent damage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Ear protection safeguards your hearing. Wear earplugs or other hearing protective devices when involved in a loud activity (special earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware and sporting goods stores). Hearing protection needn't be dorky; small foam earplugs, when rolled tightly and inserted snugly, can provide 15 to 20 decibels of protection. Forget sticking cotton in your ears, Dr. Hirsch says; it doesn't work at all.
A last caution: Some medications—including intravenous antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs, and narcotics such as hydrocodone—can permanently damage hearing. People who have lost hearing in one ear should be sure to let their doctor know, says Dr. Hirsch, so that they minimize risk to the remaining good ear.
The ability to make the sound of your voice—produced by the vibration of your vocal folds—is an important part of daily interactions. The vocal cords are two elastic bands of muscle tissue located in the larynx (voice box) directly above the trachea (windpipe). The vocal cords produce voice when air held in the lungs is released and passed through the closed vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. When a person is not speaking, the vocal cords remain apart to allow the person to breathe.
Straining or overusing your voice can create swelling of the vocal folds, or vocal cords, and they can become red and irritated, causing hoarseness. During the winter months, the cold dry winter air can lead also to hoarseness by drying out the vocal cords, said Dr. Rosen. "[It] affects their ability to vibrate," he said, so drink lots of water.
Other liquids will do just as well, Dr. Rosen added, as long as they don't contain caffeine or alcohol, diuretics that further dehydrate the body.
Dr. Rosen said, "One of the key take-home messages or preventative measures is any time you're hoarse due to illness or recreational misuse, a couple days of resting the voice will often allow it to recover. And, just as a point of fact: Where people become permanently injured in their vocal cords and require medical attention is when you don't back off or rest your voice when the cords are starting to become a problem.”
"The other thing is," Dr. Rosen said, "if the voice doesn't get better within a week's time ... you need to seek help from an ear, nose and throat doctor."