When it comes to our hearing, protection is the name of the game. Sensorineural hearing loss—the kind that results from the damage or death of the tiny, hair-like cells in our inner ears—accounts for 90% of hearing loss, and is unfortunately permanent. When this hearing loss is the result of noise exposure, it’s called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
About Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)
Modern life is noisy, and there are all kinds of situations when we are exposed to damaging noise levels, often without even realizing it! Everyone knows that a painfully loud sound can cause hearing loss, but it’s not just about volume: it’s also about duration.
Sound levels as low as 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause NIHL after about 8 hours of exposure. 85 dBA is about the volume level of a gas-powered lawn mower, or a leaf blower. Some vacuum cleaners can hit 85 dBA, as well. And for every additional 3 dBA of sound, the safe time of exposure is cut in half. That means by the time sound reaches 100 dBA—about the volume level at a high school dance, or while riding a motorcycle—only 15 minutes of exposure can cause permanent hearing loss.
Under normal circumstances, sound will not be painful under 130 dBA, yet as you can see much of the sound we experience at those non-painful levels will cause hearing loss very quickly.
Concerts and Sports Events
Large gatherings tend to be very noisy, and both music concerts and sports events can damage the unprotected ear. We might think of wearing earplugs at a rock concert, but most people do not imagine that sports events will harm their hearing. In fact, they do!
The loudest “crowd roar” at a sports event on record happened on September 29, 2014. The Kansas City Chiefs were playing the New England Patriots. With 8 seconds remaining in the first quarter, the Patriots’ running back Shane Vereen was stuffed for no gain on a 2nd-down rush. The home crowd went wild, registering a deafening 142.2 dBA roar. It is not recommended to experience sound above 140 dBA even with hearing protection in place!
We don’t want to be killjoys about the thrill of an historic moment in sports, but neither do we want to see sports fans losing their hearing unnecessarily! Always be sure to wear earplugs at the game!
Custom-molded earplugs can be a great option for those who need regular hearing protection, whether for sports or music. They are comfortable to wear for long periods, and they keep the balance of the frequency spectrum intact much better than foam disposables or even over-the-counter reusable options. Different levels of attenuation are available (up to about 36 dBA) for a variety of activities.
Be sure not to over-attenuate for your intended use! Over-attenuation can cut you off from your environment and make communication difficult. If your earplugs make it harder to get along in a given environment, you’re less likely to use them! When you get custom-molded earplugs from a hearing healthcare professional, we’ll make sure that your attenuation level is appropriate for your intended purpose.
Personal Listening Devices (PLDs)
When the Sony WalkmanTM came on the scene in 1979, it immediately caused an uproar in the hearing healthcare community, and rightly so. The maximum volume of the original Walkman was easily capable of causing hearing damage. While, for the first time, people were free to enjoy their music on the go, rates of hearing loss climbed.
So over 40 years later, we’ve learned our lesson and stopped making our personal listening devices capable of hurting our ears, right? Unfortunately, not even close! In fact, most of today’s PLDs have an even louder maximum volume than the original Walkman. More efficient battery and amplifier technology, as well as the fact that music players no longer require moving parts, means that manufacturers have been able to crank up the volume even higher.
How do you protect yourself while listening to a PLD? You can’t accurately measure the effective sound level you’re experiencing—without a Real Ear Measurement system, at least—and we tend to lose track of just how loud we might be listening in headphones.
A useful trick is to always start with the volume low, and turn it up slowly until it is just loud enough to hear clearly. This will be effective and safe in most situations.
However, if there is a good deal of background noise, you might need to turn your PLD’s volume up to dangerous levels in order to hear the content comfortably! It’s tricky, right?
If you tend to listen in situations where background noise is an issue—such as planes, trains and automobiles—you might consider investing in a set of active noise-canceling headphones. Headphones tend to be less damaging than earbuds in the first place, and active noise canceling will limit the background sound so you can enjoy whatever it is you’re listening to at a lower volume.