Hearing loss is a common health concern for many people, but the good news is that some types are preventable! According to the Better Hearing Institute, one-third of permanent hearing loss is preventable with proper hearing loss prevention strategies, increased awareness and small changes in habit that can result in substantial benefit to your hearing health.
Of the many causes of permanent hearing loss, the one that is most preventable is noise-induced hearing loss caused by noise and music exposure. Although music and noise appear to be quite different; one being a good thing and the other, less good, both have a similar (but not identical) effect on our hearing.
There are two main factors that contribute to noise or music related hearing loss, the sound level (intensity) and how long one is exposed to the noise or music (duration). There is nothing wrong with going to a rock concert on Friday night as long as you don’t mow your lawn on Saturday morning.
In other words, it is the combination of higher sound levels of noise or music, and how long we are exposed to it. Sometimes this is called the noise exposure “dose”. If we exceed 100% of the dose often enough, there is the potential for damage to your hearing resulting in permanent hearing loss…but not immediately.
Noise and music hearing loss
Of all the types of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss which can be noise-induced is most common. The problem with hearing loss caused by loud noises is that you often don’t realize the slow and subtle effects of being exposed to too much noise or music, or when a situation is noisy enough to cause damage. In some sense the effects of being exposed to too much noise or music would be easier to observe if ours ears instantly showed signs of wear and tear, i.e. began to bleed, or had pain associated with it. Unfortunately, a damaging level and dose of noise or music exposure is not painful and is rarely noticed — its effects are invisible, at least in the short term. The effects may not be noticed for many years, when the damage is already done.
To make matters worse, a potentially damaging sound level (measured in decibels or dB) is amazingly quiet. We know from research of large numbers of workers that prolonged exposure to 85 dB or greater will eventually cause some measurable hearing loss. But 85 dB is roughly the sound of a dial tone and nobody feels that a dial tone is all that loud, yet prolonged exposure of this can cause hearing loss.
Noise and music related hearing loss takes many years to show itself.
There are some Smartphone apps that can be used to measure your dose of loud listening — one is called “Sound Log” and another is the "NIOSH Sound Level Meter App" from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Both are available only on the iPhone.
Headphones and hearing loss
The effects of portable music players have been studied since the early 1980s with the advent of the Walkman. In the 1990s, we had portable CD players, and since the late 1990s, we have had portable MP3 players. The important word is “portable,” simply because one uses earphones or earbuds in your ears — but this is not the problem. One will always adjust the volume to a comfortable level regardless of whether the loudspeaker is 10 meters away or the earphone is 10 mm away. But with portability comes noisy environments.
In the quiet of your home, a comfortable listening level may be volume 3 of out 10, but while walking next to a construction site or listening on noisy public transit, this same comfortable volume may be 6 out of 10 and may be potentially damaging. In both cases the music was the same “loudness” but while listening in a noisier place, the “sound level” was much higher and potentially damaging. As a starting point, the 80/90 rule is a useful tool. One can listen at “80%” volume for “90 minutes” each day. For most earphones, this provides roughly 50% of your final dose of music exposure. If your favourite song comes on, go ahead and turn up the volume; just return it to a quieter volume setting after.
Use the 80/90 rule! Listen at “80 percent” volume for “90 minutes” each day.
Sound level and loudness
The phrase “sound level” and the word “loudness” sound like they may just be synonyms. They are related, but they are quite different. The sound level is measured in dB and is an actual physical measurement of vibrations in air — this is what is related to hearing loss. In contrast, loudness is merely a subjective measurement that allows us to make rough judgments of quiet or loud. There is no such thing as a “loudness meter” but there is a “sound level meter”.
Watch for the signs
Watching for the signs of noise or music-related hearing loss symptoms is key and being prepared is important. If a situation feels too loud, it probably is. Here are some common signs of harmful noise exposure:
- The noise is painful.
- You cannot hear someone who is three feet away from you.
- You have to shout over background noise.
- You experience ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears after exposure to noise.
- You experience "fullness" in your ears after leaving a noisy area.
- You have decreased or "muffled" hearing for several hours after the noise exposure.
Even though you might have experienced these symptoms temporarily in the past, your hearing may not always bounce-back, leaving you with a permanent hearing problem.
Precautions to minimize the potential for hearing loss
We live in a noise-filled world, but there are several precautions you can take to protect your hearing. There are several types of hearing protection available, from low-cost, low-tech to high-tech, high-end noise cancellation devices.
Earmuffs or noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones protect your ears by being placed completely over the ear and creating a seal, lowering noise levels by 15 to 30 db. They come in wired and wireless forms and can be light-weight for prolonged wear. Earmuffs can be combined with earplugs and worn together for ultimate noise protection.
Earplugs are placed in the ear canal and lower noise levels by 15 to 30 db. They come in disposable or reusable forms and are made from acoustically specialized material to prevent damaging noise, yet are sophisticated enough to let in important sounds such as those from doorbells, phones, and alarm clocks. Earplugs can be customized to your unique ear, which provides better comfort and ease in care and maintenance. Customized earplugs are not only more comfortable but made from higher quality materials that will last longer.
For musicians and people who like to go to concerts, there is a special type of hearing protection that treats all of the sound of music equally, thereby maintaining the balance and enjoyment of music. Various manufacturers offer this musicians’ earplug and they have been available since the late 1980s.
Musicians’ earplugs offer roughly 15 dB of hearing protection and this is the same protection for the bass notes, the mid-range notes, and the treble notes.
Go ahead and enjoy loud music; just at a lower sound level!
In addition to wearing hearing protection when working or playing in noisy or loud environments:
- Use caution every day to manage your risk of noise exposure.
- Monitor your listening level and how long you are listening to music or noise.
- Limit exposure to noisy activities at home and adjust your personal listening devices (like MP3 players, such as iPods) to a sustainable healthy hearing level.
- Beware of recreational sources of hazardous noise like firecrackers, firearms, lawn mowers, power tools, music concerts, sporting events and motorsport vehicles.
Remember, noise or music hearing loss can be caused by prolonged exposure to any loud noise over 85 dB. Refer to our sound level meter which shows you the risk associated with exposure to various everyday noise environments.
Get a hearing test
It is possible to prevent some causes of hearing loss and being proactive about your hearing health is where it starts. Getting a baseline hearing test is the first step. This allows you to track your hearing over time, even if you haven't already experienced symptoms of hearing loss. If your hearing test indicates a form of hearing loss, you can start to take action to prevent it from getting worse and treat it. Your hearing care professional will review the results with you and counsel you on better hearing health. Whether that includes hearing aids, alternative treatment options or preventive strategies, you are on your way to a better quality of life.
If you work in a noisy place or participate in a noisy pastime and are concerned about your hearing, or if you suspect you may already have hearing loss, be sure to visit our extensive directory to find a dedicated hearing healthcare professional near you.