What do rock concerts, jackhammers and motorcycles have in common? They all make noise at very high decibels that has the potential to cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). According to a recent article in the Association for Speech-Language-Hearing Association's magazine The ASHA Leader, more than 26 million adults in the U.S. have noise-induced hearing loss from recreation or the workplace.
What is NIHL?
NIHL happens when our ears are exposed to very loud sounds, either during a one-time event like an explosion or over a long period of time through repeated exposure to loud noise. We measure sound in decibels on a scale of 0 to 140. For example, a whisper measures about 30 decibels, normal conversation is typically 60, a lawnmower measures 90, a very loud rock concert is 115 and a jet engine is 140 decibels.
Our ears can safely be exposed to sounds less than 75 decibels over long periods of time with no harm done, but an explosion can cause immediate hearing loss and be accompanied by tinnitus. Many people don't realize that listening to loud sounds over a long period of time – such as regularly attending concerts and listening to loud music through earphones – can cause hearing loss. People who work in construction, airports, factories or on farms are most at risk for NIHL due to the nature of their work.
Unfortunately, NIHL is typically permanent because it results from damage to the sensitive, tiny hair cells in our inner ears that cannot grow back.
Tips to prevent NIHL
Luckily, there are preventative hearing loss solutions you can use to avoid NIHL, including earplugs and earmuffs. Earplugs are inserted into the ear canal and, when they fit properly, completely seal off the ear canal. You can buy them at any drugstore or, if you have a difficult time finding some that fit correctly, an audiologist can make custom earplugs. It's important to know that ear plugs can become worn out and will need to be purchased again.
Ear muffs are another good option. They cover the entire outer ear and are best for the loudest noises. You can also use earplugs and ear muffs together when sounds are louder than 105 decibels. When they fit correctly, these implements can reduce sounds to 15 to 30 decibels.
Additionally, when listening to music, choose headphones that can't reach above 85 decibels. Sometimes people – especially teenagers and college students – like to turn up their music very loudly to cover other loud noise, but this can be damaging.
When should you wear them?
- When playing in a band or attending a loud concert
- When mowing the lawn, using a chainsaw or operating a snow blower
- When doing loud leisure activities like riding a motorcycle or snowmobile or shooting at a gun range
- When a job requires that you be in loud environments
This information is great to share with family and friends, especially young relatives who might not yet realize the risk of loud music to their hearing health.