How cold weather, loud cheers can harm hearing of Winter Olympics spectators

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

In what is shaping up to become the coldest Winter Olympic Games since 1994, the ski-warping, makeup-freezing temperatures in PyeongChang have been brutally low.

For spectators enjoying the Games for prolonged periods, watching the events amid cold weather and the loud roaring of cheers could potentially cause problems for their ears.

Experts say that protecting your ears and hearing during major sporting events is critical.

“There aren’t any great studies that show that you have worsened hearing if you’ve been in the cold for a long period of time, but you definitely will notice that your ears are more sensitive to the cold weather,” said Alicia Spoor, president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology.

Winter Olympics speed skating

Two spectators wear the South Korean national flag as they wait for the start of the men's 10,000 meters speed skating race at the Gangneung Oval at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

"Because of that sensitivity, a lot of people will say they don’t feel like they’re hearing as well, since the cold will affect the ear’s cartilage,” Spoor said.

Ears have heightened sensitivity compared to other body parts due to the single layer of skin inside the ear canal, as opposed to the four layers that typically cover the rest of the body, Spoor added.

Cold weather exposure can also pose the risk of the rarely occurring exostosis, which is more commonly known as swimmer’s or surfer’s ear, according to the Tennessee-based Shea Ear Clinic.

Exostosis occurs when abnormal bone growth within the ear canal develops and blocks the eardrum following frequent exposure to cold, wet and windy conditions.

Winter sports athletes who participate in underwater diving, snowboarding and skiing are susceptible to it.

The uncommon and preventable condition can be avoided by limiting activity in extreme cold and protecting ears with earplugs.

You should wear a hat if you’re going to be outside and cover your ears if you’re going to be in prolonged exposure, just like you would have gloves on to protect your hands,” Spoor said.

Loud noise exposure

“When I watch the Olympic events indoors versus outdoors, I think about how loud the PA system is and how many people are cheering, screaming and chanting,” Spoor said.

All of these factors can increase the likelihood of noise-induced hearing loss.

“At that point, protecting your hearing is going to be very different from protecting just the sensitivity of your ear from things like frostbite or pain and cold weather,” she added.

It was reported that the small, 6,000-seat velodrome at the 2012 Summer Olympics recorded levels reaching 140 decibels, making it the noisiest Olympic venue that year.

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“We know that excessive noise of any kind is harmful for the ears, and does in fact cause hearing loss,” American Academy of Audiology President Dr. Jackie Clark told AccuWeather.

Boomer Phelps' hearing protection - 2016 Summer Olympics

Michael Phelps' son Boomer wears ear protection during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Once you get beyond 80 decibels, we start thinking it’s a dangerous level, but it [depends on] how much time you’re exposed to that and the duration of the signal,” Clark said.

Hearing threats can impact athletes as well, but it depends on the type of sport, noise level, and where the noise is located, according to Annette Mazevski, AuD, PhD, manager of technology assessment at hearing solutions company Oticon.

“If you have an athlete competing in the biathlon, which involves shooting a rifle, the risk of hearing damage can be significant,” Mazevski said.

Audiologists follow guidelines provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) when considering safe hearing levels.

“OSHA says that you should not be in a 100-decibel environment for more 15 minutes, because it poses such a risk to your hearing, and you shouldn’t be in an environment that has more than 110 decibels for more than one minute,” Spoor said.

According to Clark, some individuals are predisposed to genetic and health factors, including diabetes and renal issues, that increase the risk of hearing loss in addition to the threat posed by external elements.

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To protect the ears from deafening noise levels at sporting events, audiologists can create custom-made earplugs if needed, according to the California Ear Institute.

Earmuffs or hearing-protecting headphones can also help shield the ears from damage.

“[You could wear] what Michael Phelps’ son Boomer made popular during the 2016 Summer Olympics – those headband-types of earmuffs that shooters often wear and kids are wearing as well,” Spoor said.

Mazevski recommended reviewing the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) for whichever type of hearing protection is purchased to ensure it provides adequate protection.

NRR is unit of measurement used to determine the effectiveness of hearing protection devices to decrease sound exposure within a specific environment.

Audiologists agree that a rule of thumb to consider is that if it’s hard to hold a conversation or difficult to hear what someone says from 3 feet away, the environment is likely too loud to be healthy.

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