Teenagers are increasingly experiencing tinnitus, often a symptom of hearing loss, as a result of using ear buds to listen to music for long periods every day, as well as frequenting very noisy places like nightclubs, discos and rock concerts, according to a study performed in Brazil.
Tinnitus is the medical term for perception of sound that has no external source. Many sufferers describe it as a ringing in the ears, others as whistling, buzzing, chirping or hissing. A paper describing the study has just been published in Scientific Reports, an online journal published by Springer Nature.
"We found a very high prevalence of tinnitus among adolescents, and this should be seen as an early warning that these youngsters run a serious risk of hearing loss. If this teen generation continue to expose themselves to very high noise levels, they'll probably suffer from hearing loss by the time they're 30 or 40," said Tanit Ganz Sanchez, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of São Paulo's Medical School (FM-USP) and principal investigator for the study.
The researchers used an otoscope to examine the ears of 170 students between 11 and 17 years old. They also asked the teenagers to complete a questionnaire asking whether they had experienced tinnitus in the previous 12 months and, if so, with what volume, duration and frequency. Over half (54.7%) reported a prior experience of tinnitus.
"This level of prevalence is alarming," Sanchez said. "There was a notion that tinnitus was a problem of older people, but we're seeing it becoming more prevalent in younger groups, including children and teenagers, because of their increasing exposure to high levels of noise, among other factors."
The adolescents who reported prior tinnitus were submitted to psychoacoustic examination to assess hearing function. Administered by an audiologist in an acoustic chamber, the examination measured hearing thresholds using an audiometer at 14?frequencies (0.25-16?kHz), as well as loudness discomfort and the intensity of any tinnitus experienced.
During the psychoacoustic measurements, 28.8% of the total sample (49 out of 170) perceived tinnitus in the acoustic booth. The psychoacoustic properties of tinnitus measured in the sound booth corresponded with those of chronic tinnitus in adults.
"We found that adolescents perceive tinnitus very often but unlike adults don't worry about it and don't complain to parents or teachers, for example. As a result, they aren't seen by a doctor or hearing specialist, and the problem can become chronic," Sanchez said.
The researchers also observed that most of the teenagers who took part in the study reported risky listening habits, such as continuous use of ear buds and exposure to very noisy environments; even so, those who reported experiencing tinnitus displayed less tolerance of loud sounds.
Of the 93 school students who reported tinnitus in the last 12 months (54.7% of the total sample), 51 (54.8% of this group) said they had noticed it after listening to loud music. "If the ears of teenagers with tinnitus are more sensitive to high levels of sound than those without, it's natural to expect them to suffer from hearing loss sooner. The tinnitus is an early sign of this impairment that appears well before any actual hearing loss," Sanchez said.