About 10 million Americans suffer irreversible noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). What’s more, as many as 17 percent of teens (ages 12 to 19) have features of their hearing that suggest NIHL in one or both ears.1 Noise can be dangerous through a one-time exposure to an intense sound, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over long periods of time, such as noise from headphones, headsets, earbuds, and personal listening devices, in addition to loud work environments.
In particular, the “sounds of summer”—concerts, fireworks, motorcycles, sirens, and even firearms—can range anywhere from 95 to 150 decibels (dB). Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB can cause both temporary and permanent hearing loss.
NIHL occurs as a result of loud noises that damage the inner ear. Listening to music at volumes louder than 85 dB for long periods of time can cause permanent hearing loss. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) permit workers to listen to 85 dB for eight hours in a row. But for every three dB above that, the time that is considered safe is divided in half. That means you’re only recommended to listen at 88 dB for four hours, at 91 dB for two hours, at 94 dB for one hour, at 97 dB for 30 minutes, at 100 dB for 15 minutes, and so on. The average portable music player is played at 100 dB, and cellphones or listening devices in the U.S. can produce a maximum of 115 dB.
The symptoms of NIHL can be hard to tell in early stages. Hearing loss tends to occur first for high-pitched sounds only. Because of this, the volume of sound heard may be unchanged but the quality of it lessens. Over time, speech may be heard but not completely understood. The presence of background noise can make speech hard to understand. Also, ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) may occur as a result of NIHL.
The hearWHO Hearing Screening App is a free app developed by the World Health Organization for mobile devices which allows people to check their hearing regularly. The app is for people who are at risk of hearing loss or who already have some of the symptoms related to hearing loss.
Very loud sounds damage the hair cells of the cochlea, the hearing part of the inner ear. These sensitive structures are small sensory cells that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain, where the brain converts them into meaningful sounds. Once damaged, hair cells cannot regrow and lose the ability to transmit sound.
When loud sounds are exposed to the ear for a short time, you may experience temporary hearing loss (also known as temporary threshold shift) or ringing in the ears (tinnitus). If the ear is exposed to loud sounds over longer periods of time, the hair cells can be damaged forever, causing permanent sensorineural hearing loss.
Parents should know that various medical studies have found sound levels at music concerts often to be greater than 85 dB, with some reports suggesting that sound intensity may reach 90 to 122 dB. As mentioned earlier, if levels are kept at values greater than 85 dB for long periods of time, this may lead to a dangerous noise exposure. People young and old enjoy going to concerts, but frequent attendees may experience potentially irreversible hearing loss if they are not careful.
One research study examined sound intensity throughout a concert venue, and the effectiveness of earplugs. The findings stated that sound pressure levels appeared equally hazardous in all parts of the concert hall, regardless of the type of music played.2 That’s why earplugs are recommended at every type of music concert, regardless of your distance to the stage.
Some helpful tips for protecting your or a loved one’s hearing include:
Remember: If you have to shout to hear yourself or someone else, or if ringing, diminished hearing, or a sense of fullness in the ears is experienced after noise exposure, the level of that noise is damaging.
2 “Incidence of spontaneous hearing threshold shifts during modern concert performances,” Opperman, Reifman, Schlauch, Levine; Otol-HNS 2006, 134:4: 667-673.