When you come out of a loud concert or sporting event with ringing ears, you likely wait for the sensation to fade and then forget about it. Maybe your ears get a workout from all the racket, but they seem to recover, right?
The truth is, that feeling in your ears is telling you something: You already have damaged your hearing.
No matter how old you are, you need to protect your ears around loud noises to avoid premature hearing loss.
Ringing or dullness in your ears after exposure to loud sounds are signs you have overworked your ears, says Sharon A. Sandridge, PhD, Director of Clinical Services in Audiology at Cleveland Clinic.
“We used to call this a temporary threshold shift because we thought that after eight hours, your hearing would return to normal,” she says. “We now know that there is nothing temporary about it, the damage is permanent. It may not show up on a hearing test, but that damage shows up in your ability to process sounds especially in noisy environments.”
The damage accumulates over time, too. Loud concerts, woodworking tools, motorcycles, hunting — they all can add up to irreversible hearing loss.
It’s a good idea to use ear protection in any situation where the noise level is too loud for too long, Dr. Sandridge says.
“If you have to raise your voice so people can hear you, you’re in a potentially risky sound environment,” she says. “It also depends on how long you’re exposed to loud noise. If you’re mowing your grass for five minutes, you’re probably safe. However, if you’re mowing grass for two hours, then you’re probably at risk.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sets a baseline level of 85 decibels (dB), which is about as loud as city traffic or slightly louder than a garbage disposal. Long exposure above this level can damage the delicate structures inside your ears.
“A majority of people are safe listening to 85 dB for eight hours,” Dr. Sandridge says. “Rock concerts are typically 100 dB or higher. At 100 dB, your ears can only tolerate that level for about 15 minutes. Anything longer than that, you should wear some hearing protection.”
There are two general types of wearable ear protection: Ear muffs and ear plugs.
Like the fluffy headgear designed to protect your outer ears from the cold, ear muffs designed for hearing protection are easy to fit, and simply slip on over your head. But ear muffs for hearing protection are serious pieces of equipment, usually with broad foam-cushioned cups that go over the ears to block out sound. Many have a Noise Reduction Rating, which measures how well the equipment protects your hearing.
Ear muffs come in active and passive styles. Active styles use electronics to amplify conversation so you can communicate with others while blocking out louder noise. Passive ear muffs just block out loud noise.
If you need ear protection for recreational noise, ear muffs work well. For instance, use them for:
“The caveat is that they have to fit you properly,” Dr. Sandridge says. “If there’s any leakage around the cup that fits around your ears then it’s like not wearing ear protection at all.”
Ear plugs fit tightly into your ear canal and generally provide greater protection than ear muffs. They are also light and easy to carry around. Ear plugs offer good protection for a loud workplace such as a factory, construction site or airport, Dr. Sandridge says. They come in many shapes, colors and designs.
The challenge with ear plugs, Dr. Sandridge says, is trying to find the ones that fit into your ears easily, comfortably and appropriately.
“The fit is critical,” she says. “Try different earplugs to find an ear plug that feels comfortable and provides you the best sound reduction.”