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How Loud Is Too Loud for Healthy Hearing?

What to know about noise levels and how to protect your ears

 

Loud noise is the new secondhand smoke. Learn how you can help protect your hearing.

En español | Following your favorite rock band in your youth may not have seemed particularly hazardous to your health. But now you’re finding it difficult to hear the TV or follow a conversation in a noisy restaurant, and you’re wondering if Kiss or the Rolling Stones — or whomever you used to listen to at full volume — might be to blame for your hearing loss. The short answer: maybe.

What’s known as “noise-induced hearing loss,” which can occur in one or both ears, is caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds. It can happen after hearing a very loud noise — like a bomb blast — just once, which may explain why veterans are 30 percent more likely to have severe hearing impairment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also can be caused by listening to loud, though less sudden, noises over an extended period of time. Either way, the “noise causes trauma at multiple sites within the inner ear and at different degrees,” says otolaryngologist John Oghalai, chair and professor of the University of Southern California Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. “Some types of damage are temporary, and the body repairs the damage. Other forms cannot be effectively repaired.”

Noise-induced hearing loss can also cause tinnitus, which is commonly described as a ringing, roaring, hissing or buzzing in one or both ears.

Hearing loss in general is extremely common as we age: Roughly 1 in 3 adults between the ages of 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of people over 75 have trouble hearing. Certain medical conditions and medications may play a role, but age-related hearing loss usually happens because of changes in the inner ear, which controls balance and the ability to hear.


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Hearing loss specifically caused by exposure to loud noises, on the other hand, can happen at almost any age. According to a 2017 report from the CDC, almost 1 in 4 adults between the ages of 20 and 69 shows signs of noise-induced hearing loss. And although rock concerts are a familiar culprit for musicians with hearing loss (rockers from Ozzy Osbourne to Eric Clapton have reported hearing trouble), they’re hardly the only one. Everyday sounds — rush-hour traffic, happy-hour bar acoustics, lawn mowers, leaf blowers — can pose a threat, too.

Near-constant use of smartphone earbuds also may raise your risk, though researchers are still trying to get a handle on that. “Large-scale studies are currently being done to figure out how risky this actually is,” says neuro-otologist Daniel Q. Sun, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But, he adds, “It’s estimated that up to 1 in 10 young people could be at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss based on how loud and how long earbuds are being used.”

The good news: There’s plenty you can do to prevent noise-related hearing loss or slow its progression. For starters, of course, avoid or at least reduce your exposure to loud settings.

Defining “Too Loud"

Experts measure sound in units called decibels (dB): Those that register under 75 dB are unlikely to cause hearing loss, even after prolonged exposure. The “too loud” sounds would be those that come in at or above 85 dB. Prolonged or repeated exposure to such noises can cause damage. The louder the sound, the less time it takes for that damage to occur. Here are the average decibel ratings of some familiar sounds, according to the CDC and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:

•    Regular breathing: 10 dB

•    Whisper: 30 dB

•    Refrigerator hum: 45 dB

•    Normal conversation: 60 dB

•    Heavy city traffic (from inside your car): 80-85 dB

•    Motorcycle: 95 dB

•    Approaching subway train: 100 dB

•    Siren: 120 dB

•    Firecrackers: 140-150 dB

Download a smartphone app that doubles as a sound-level meter to measure the noise around you. (The CDC recommends the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app; free for iPhone.) Other free apps, such as SoundPrint, measure restaurant volume, which often can surpass 85 dB.

If you can’t avoid noisy settings or control the volume, try using earplugs or earmuffs. One study, published in 2016 in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, found that wearing earplugs helped prevent temporary hearing loss caused by exposure to loud music over several hours. Only 8 percent of participants who used earplugs during an outdoor concert (average noise level: 100 dB) experienced temporary hearing loss, compared with 42 percent who didn’t use earplugs; and 12 percent of the earplug users experienced tinnitus versus 40 percent of the other participants.

Treatment

If you do have trouble hearing, don’t avoid getting your hearing checked; many people wait years after noticing a problem before they seek help.

Your doctor can help determine if there’s another cause for your hearing loss, such as wax buildup, and discuss treatment options. “Headphones that connect to the TV to bring the sound right to your ears are really helpful for most people,” says otolaryngologist John Oghalai. Hearing aids can help, too, especially “when you’re in a difficult listening situation, such as a restaurant or conference, which has a lot of background noise.” Work with your doctor to find the one that works best for you.

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