Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic health issues in the United States. It decreases your ability to understand speech and hear sounds around you. People who work in noisy environments such as construction sites, road crews, and factories may lose hearing over time from being exposed to constant noise without proper protection.
However, individuals who listen to loud music with headphones frequently attend open-air music festivals or go to nightclubs can also be affected. The key to preventing hearing loss is to know what is considered “loud” and limiting your exposure. The louder the volume, the less time you can listen safely before harming your hearing.
Damage to the Hair Cells
Hair cells bend when there is noise, similar to the way tall grass bends in the breeze. The louder the noise, the more they flex, the more damage to your hearing. Sometimes, the cells will straighten after a recovery period, but they begin to die if they are too damaged. The average person has approximately 16,000 hair cells in their inner ear. If a hearing test indicates hearing loss, chances are you have damaged 30% to 50% of these cells. This damage is often noise-related and is typically permanent.
Damage to the Nerves in the Ear
The acoustic nerve, also called the auditory nerve, transfers sound information from the inner ear to the brain, beginning when sound vibrations hit the eardrum. When working together with the middle and outer ear, they effectively transmit sound. Minor damage might not show up at a hearing test, but you may notice that it is increasingly difficult to hear and understand the person next to you in a noisy restaurant or crowd.
Exposure to Too Much Noise
Over time, being bombarded with loud noises can result in hearing damage. However, it can also happen if you are near sudden short, explosive bursts of noise, such as fireworks or gunshots. The best way to avoid hearing loss is to stay away from loud noises as much as possible.
A decibel measures sound levels and are typically used in communication, signals, and electronics. The higher the number, the louder the noise. Here are the sound levels of some common noises:
- Conversations at normal levels – 60-65dB
- Street traffic – 75-85dB
- Heavy traffic or a lawnmower – 85dB
- Forklift and similar heavy machinery – 90dB
- Tractor-trailer truck from about 25 feet away – 95-100dB
- Motorcycles – 100 dB
- Movie theater sound during action scenes – 100dB
- Car horns and nightclub music – 110dB
- Digital music playing on loud – 112dB
- Chainsaw – 115-120dB
- Ambulance siren and rock concerts – 120dB
- Fireworks – 140-160dB
Sound below 70 decibels is generally considered safe. If you are in an environment where you are shouting to be heard over the noise, you are potentially risking damage to your hearing. Repeated or long-term exposure to sounds at 85dB or above can result in hearing loss. If loud music causes pain in your ears, turn it down immediately.
Minimize Hearing Loss
Although you can adjust to loud noise over time, your brain and ears do not. You can lose your hearing gradually and not notice until the damage is irreversible. Here are some hearing tips that can help you start protecting your hearing now.
1. Use Earplugs
Foam earplugs or earmuffs designed specifically to dampen noise are economical and easy to use. If you work in an environment with consistent noise levels throughout the day, you can reduce hearing loss by wearing them. Take regular breaks away from the noise if leaving the location isn’t possible to give your ears a break.
2. Turn Down the Volume
If you have to yell to hear over the television, radio, or streaming device, turn it down. Don’t use these items to drown out other sounds in the background. If you’re listening through headphones and the person next to you can hear it, it’s probably too loud.
3. Follow the 60:60 Rule
Enjoy listening to music at no more than 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day. Many streaming devices that use Bluetooth have a smart volume feature that can help you regulate sound levels.
4. Get Noise-Canceling Headphones
Noise-canceling headphones can block out background noise allowing you to hear music, movies, and phone conversations better. This lets you use a lower volume and give your ears a rest.
5. Use Ear Protection at Live Events
Earplugs and muffs can reduce sound levels between 15 and 35 decibels. Many events sell them on-site if you don’t have any or leave home without them. Once there, don’t stand near the speakers or the location where fireworks are set off. The sudden noise can cause damage quickly.
6. Wear Ear Protection at Work
A noisy work environment can adversely affect your hearing and potentially impact your overall health negatively. Talk with a person in the human resources department. Ask if the noise can be reduced. If not, request hearing protection.
7. Don’t Put Anything in Your Ear
The general rule of thumb is don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. This includes cotton swabs, paperclips, bobby pins, keys, or anything else you may use to scratch or clean your ears.
8. Dial Back the Sound in the Car
Listening to loud music in a confined space can increase the risk of damage to the hair cells in your ears. When the windows are closed, turn down the volume. Although you may enjoy feeling the wind in your hair when driving with the windows down, the noise it causes can contribute to hearing loss. If you are driving at high speed, it’s better to keep the window up.
9. Keep Moving
Exercise keeps the blood flowing through your entire body, including your ears. Good circulation can keep oxygen levels up and the internal parts of the ears healthy. If you attend exercise classes, give your ears a rest after class.
10. Avoid Using Earbuds
Although they are less conspicuous than traditional earmuff style headphones, earbuds don’t block out the background noise as efficiently. This may tempt you to increase the volume, which can damage your hearing. They can also make your ears sore if inserted too far or for too long.
If you have ear pain or notice sudden changes in your hearing, schedule a hearing test. Our audiologists can identify, diagnose and treat hearing loss. Whether you are ready for a hearing evaluation, are considering cochlear implants, or want an updated hearing aid, contact us to schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment today.
How Does Loud Noise Cause Hearing Loss? – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
What is a Decibel – UNSW School of Physics
Too Loud! For Too Long! – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Tips on Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss – Johns Hopkins Medicine
Top 10 Tips to Help Protect Your Hearing – Healthily