When classic rock bands REO Speedwagon, Styx and .38 Special perform in Springfield on Thursday, the music likely will be loud. Anyone who's ever been to a similar concert, or worked at a construction site or blared the car radio with the windows up, has probably experienced a whirring, swishing, buzzing, ringing sound that originates in the ear or head. It's called tinnitus. To help individuals avoid hearing damage, audiologists tout the benefits of hearing protection.

When classic rock bands REO Speedwagon, Styx and .38 Special perform in Springfield on Thursday, the music likely will be loud.

Anyone who's ever been to a similar concert, or worked at a construction site or blared the car radio with the windows up, has probably experienced a whirring, swishing, buzzing, ringing sound that originates in the ear or head.

According to WebMD.com, this sound is known as tinnitus. It's a symptom of an underlying condition, and can be a sign of hearing loss or other medical conditions.

Hearing loss can result at any age, especially among individuals who work in environments with high-intensity noise, such as rock music or firearms.

To help individuals avoid hearing damage, local audiologists are touting the benefits of hearing protection.

Nearly 36 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, the onerous sound originating in the outer, middle or inner ear that only the patient can hear.

Audiologist Dr. David Groesch of Central Illinois Hearing says some tinnitus, or "head noise," is normal and is usually masked by outside noises.

The symptom has a passel of various causes, ranging from hearing damage to antibiotics.

"Sometimes tinnitus is a symptom of an inner-ear infection or diabetes," he says. "It can also be caused by thyroid dysfunction, high or low blood pressure, anti-inflammatory drugs or even baby aspirin."

Audiologist Dr. Jamie Purdy of the Hearing Center at Memorial, says tinnitus also may result from stress, caffeine or allergies.

"It's not a sound you hear in the environment," she says, "although some patients say it sounds like crickets."

One of the most common causes of tinnitus is an overexposure to sound.

"If you've come home from a rock concert, your ears will likely be buzzing," Groesch says. 

Although some individuals experience a ringing or hissing sound for only one or two hours after a concert or a fireworks display before the symptom dissipates, tinnitus also has the capacity for long-term side effects. 

"In some cases, tinnitus will start small and then gradually increase to a permanent state," Groesch says. "A lot of the time, tinnitus replaces permanent hearing loss." 

"In most cases, tinnitus lasts for 24-48 hours," Purdy says. "In longer cases, an individual should have their hearing checked with an audiogram."

Alleviating tinnitus

According to WebMD.com, no specific treatment for tinnitus exists. Due to the fact that tinnitus is a symptom of an underlying problem, it is difficult to alleviate.

Purdy says ongoing tinnitus will become louder when a person is doing something quiet, such as reading. Stress can also cause a person to become more sensitive to the sound. 

"I recommend finding ways to reduce stress and creating background noise with music or a fan to help drown out the sound," she says. "Also, people with tinnitus should avoid loud noise, which can cause the symptom to worsen."

Self-help groups are also available, such as the American Tinnitus Association.

Tinnitus prevention

According to the American Tinnitus Association, several steps can protect a person from excessive noise-related tinnitus.

The first is protecting hearing at work. Every workplace should follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Groesch recommends wearing inexpensive foam earplugs or sound-dampening headphones during work and leisure activities when loud sounds are inevitable. 

"Sound-dampening headphones are used by those who work on airport runways and in construction," he says. "You can also buy foam earplugs at any local drugstore in the ear hygiene section. You roll the foam plugs up into a tiny tube and stick the tube inside your ear. The foam slowly expands until it seals off the ear canal. They offer adequate protection and are great for wearing while mowing the lawn, snow blowing or working at concerts."

When attending concerts, Groesch says you're still at risk, even if you avoid the front row, because of modern amplification technology.

"With speakers positioned all around, people are exposed to the same amount of sound," he says. "At a bar, headphones attenuate loud sounds but also customer requests, so most bartenders don't use them when they should. Construction workers usually invest in heavy-duty earmuffs."

Groesch says studies suggest iPod earphones produce sounds that inflict permanent damage.

However, "the overall output of sound these earplugs produce has been reduced," Groesch said. "Now, higher-quality sound can be heard at lower frequencies, so the iPods are not as harmful, and they are safer for people to use."

On the job

Brian Oaks, general manager of the Prairie Capital Convention Center - host of Thursday's REO/Styx/.38 Special concert - takes steps to protect the hearing of employees who regularly work during concerts.

"Some people who work concerts don't wear adequate hearing protection because it disrupts communication with other employees," Oaks says. "Our headphones offer protection from loud decibels, and at the same time have a mouthpiece that makes communication between employees easy. They block loud sounds and are very effective."

Jeff Stuck, director of the grounds at the PCCC, works about 12 concerts per year and says he has never experienced any type of hearing problems.

"The headphones block quite a bit of noise," he says. "I don't know that any of the other employees have ever complained of hearing problems."

State Journal-Register