Why Ear Plugs May Be the New Ear Buds

Mar 3, 2022

(Art Credit: Pedro Gomes)

By Dr. Janice Powis, Audiologist

As pandemic restrictions have eased and people have returned to concerts and sporting events, many have done so wondering if they should still wear a mask to protect themselves from contracting COVID. As an audiologist, I hope people will also think about protecting their hearing when returning to noisy entertainment venues.

Depending on your industry, you may or may not question if your hearing is at risk at work. But if you enjoy attending concerts, clubs or other typically loud entertainment settings, or frequently use headphones – or if you have kids who do – you’ll want to know about the new safe listening guidance for entertainment venues from the World Health Organization (WHO) released to mark World Hearing Day today.

At least 22 million Americans are impacted annually by workplace exposure to hazardous noise, but more than one in two adults with noise-induced hearing loss do not have “noisy” jobs – meaning their hearing loss is due to recreational noise. Furthermore, almost half of teens and young adults between the ages of 12-35 are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices and 40% to damaging sound levels at clubs and bars. If you’ve ever left a noisy venue and experienced a clogged or muffled feeling or ringing in your ears, that’s a sign you’ve been exposed to potentially dangerous levels of noise. The WHO’s new global safe listening standards for venues or events include recommendations for limiting and monitoring sound levels at events, optimizing acoustics and sound systems for safe and enjoyable experiences, offering personal hearing protection, providing access to quiet zones, and training event staff on safe listening measures.

To minimize the risk of hearing impairment, the WHO has long recommended that noise exposure levels not exceed 70 decibels over a 24-hour period and 85 decibels – the level at which prolonged exposure can lead to hearing loss – over a 1-hour period. To put this into context, a vacuum operates at 70 decibels, and a lawnmower operates at 85 decibels. An entertainment venue can reach 120 decibels, and the maximum volume for a personal listening device can hit 105-110 decibels, levels at which hearing loss is possible in under five minutes! When I lived in Boston, I worked with a local news station on a story about hearing loss and the T (Boston’s subway system). We measured the sound of the brakes at upwards of 110 decibels. If people knew how dangerous every day sounds like headphones or the subway can be, they might do more to protect their hearing.

Will safe listening become the norm at loud entertainment venues? The first surgeon general’s report on the adverse health effects of smoking was published in 1964, and it was decades before indoor smoking would be banned widely in the US. I hope we will see the broad adoption of safe listening measures sooner than later. In the meantime, you can still heed the WHO’s theme for World Hearing Day: To hear for life, listen with care!  Follow these tips to enjoy a music-filled night out, zone out with your headphones on, or productively participate in video meetings without damaging your hearing.

  1. Turn down the volume – This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to crank up the volume when listening to your favorite tunes in the car or on your headphones. And if you have early hearing loss, you may not realize how loud something is playing. Follow the 60/60 rule – do not exceed 60% of your device’s maximum volume for more than 60 minutes per day.
  2. Wear earplugs – From inexpensive drugstore options to the latest in stylish noise reduction gear, you can enjoy a concert or sporting event and protect your hearing at the same time. If your office is the local coffee shop or other noisy location, take a pair with you.
  3. Take a break – Put down the headphones, step out of the concert venue or noisy workplace – whatever you need to do to give your ears a break from nonstop noise. Outside of my work as an audiologist, I teach meditation, so I advocate for taking meditative breaks!
  4. Know your exposure – Check out this handy noise meter from the CDC for common sounds you may be exposing yourself to and their decibel range. If you work in a high-noise environment, explore how you can limit your exposure to damaging noise levels. Start by downloading the Sound Level Meter App from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  I hope you’ll keep these tips in mind and also join me for a special webinar on March 15 to learn more about hearing loss, the signs you don’t want to ignore, and how you or someone you know can take steps to address hearing loss. Bring a friend or family member and register today.

Dr. Janice Powis, Au.D. is a senior audiologist at Lively Hearing Corporation. Prior to joining Lively, Dr. Powis spent a decade working in hospital and private practice settings in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology and the American Academy of Audiology and is board certified with the American Board of Audiology. Dr. Powis earned her degree in audiology from the University of Memphis and completed her clinical fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. In addition to her work in audiology, she is a meditation teacher and founder at Vida Meditation.

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