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With the rise of headphones and earbuds, many of us are choosing to listen to music or other sounds directly into our ears. This is especially true for the younger generations, leading many of their parents and grandparents to wonder whether they might be causing damage to their hearing! But how loud is too loud for our ears? Can you damage your hearing listening to headphones? What about loud concerts and clubs?

The legal definition of too loud

The only real definition we have of sound that is too loud for our ears is the one used in industrial audiology. These cut-offs are used to determine the point at which industrial noise like factory noise or machinery becomes damaging to the hearing. The rule is this: A volume level of 85dB for 8 hours is the cut off for safe levels of sound for the average person. If you increase the volume by 3dB, you half the time that is considered safe. This means that 88dB is only safe for 4 hours, 91dB for 2 hours, 94dB for 1 hour, and 97dB for 30 minutes. By using this rule, it’s easy to tell if loud, consistent sounds are too loud for our ears- but with music and other real-life situations, it isn’t as easy.

What does this mean in real-life situations?

When we’re listening to or playing music, or attending a concert, gig, or festival, it’s difficult to tell what the intensity (or loudness) of the sound truly is. Think about a big piece of machinery. As it continues to work, the noise it produces is steady and consistent. Compare this to listening to a live concert. You might have softer sections and much louder sections! It’s estimated that a live concert, even a classical concert, can vary in volume from 80dB to 120dB! Think about that rule we mentioned before, and work it out right up to 120dB. According to that rule, you can only be safely exposed to levels of 120dB for 13 seconds! If you imagine a weekend festival, with exposure to varying levels of sound over 72 hours, you can bet that the volume is loud enough to cause damage over that length of time.

Even listening to music on headphones can be damaging if done for long enough. An iPhone with headphones has a maximum volume output of 102dB. That only allows for 8 minutes of safe listening! Luckily with your listening device, you have the control to reduce the volume to protect your hearing.

Signs that it’s too loud for your ears

So how do you know if you’re listening to something too loud? It can be tricky to tell, especially if there is another competing noise in the environment. The car is a good example. With the road noise and noise of the car’s engine, it can be easy to turn the volume much louder without even noticing it. Have you ever been driving with the music playing, and then stop the car and think ‘wow, that’s loud!’? The music hasn’t got any louder, but without the car noise around it, it becomes much more noticeable. So how can you tell whether the volume is damaging to your ears? Experiment with your car’s volume system and a free sound level meter app. Remember the rule about time versus volume, and figure out which volume level you can safely listen to for your commute to work- and then don’t be tempted to turn it louder than that!

What about at an event? Well, if you can’t hear the person next to you, or you have to shout to be heard, the volume is probably too loud for you. You’ll also know after the gig, if you notice a dull feeling or a ringing sound in your ears, you may have damaged your hearing! This dull sensation is called a Temporary Threshold Shift, and, while it is temporary, if done enough it can lead to permanent hearing loss. The ringing is called tinnitus, a response of the auditory nerve and hair cells of the cochlea to being overstimulated. This can also be a sign that you may have damaged your hearing, and it can become permanent.

Long term damage to hearing

As we mentioned in the previous paragraph, you can experience an immediate change in hearing ability and ringing in the ears after being in a loud place. However, not everyone notices a temporary threshold shift or tinnitus. Does this mean that your ears haven’t been affected? Not necessarily. Noise damage is a long-lasting effect and can continue to decrease your hearing ability long after the exposure occurred. It’s been found that noise damage to the hearing often only becomes visible on a hearing test about 7 years after the damage occurred. This means that young people who think their ears are fine might be in for a big surprise later in life. Once the hair cells of the cochlea are damaged as a result of noise exposure, they do not come back. This loss of hearing is permanent.

Protect your hearing before it’s too late

It is so important to look after your hearing when you are young. When listening to music on headphones, reduce your volume to about 70%. On an iPhone, this works out to be about 82dB, which should be ok for about 8 hours of safe listening. Don’t increase the volume too much in the car- keep the levels comfortable, but consider that the car noise will cause you to think you need more volume than you do. Lastly, protect your hearing when attending loud concerts or festivals. Custom made music earplugs allow you to experience the music without distorting the sound or altering the balance. These are a worthwhile investment, especially if you love live music, as protecting your hearing now can help to prevent permanent hearing loss later in life.

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