How to Keep Your Ears Safe From Common Culprits of Preventable Hearing Loss

Damage accumulates over time

Women wearing headphones at concert

Earplugs aren’t exactly glamorous — but neither is saying, “WHAT?” every few minutes when you can’t understand your friend’s jokes over the restaurant’s background noise.

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About 36 million people in the U.S. have hearing loss. A third of them ended up there because of ear damage caused by loud sounds. While noise-induced hearing loss is common, it’s also preventable, says Sharon Sandridge, PhD, Director of Clinical Services in Audiology.

She shares her tips for keeping your ears in good listening order.

What’s a safe decibel level?

People often don’t think about noise-induced hearing loss, since the damage can occur years before you find yourself struggling to keep up with the conversation.

“Loud sounds are harmful, and the damage they cause accumulates over time,” Dr. Sandridge explains. “By the time you have hearing loss show up on a hearing test, the damage is pretty significant.”

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Your ears can handle a volume of about 85 decibels (roughly the volume of city traffic) for up to eight hours a day. As sounds get louder, safe listening times drop off quickly. At high volume, your smartphone headphones are around 105 dB (or more). At that level, you can safely listen for maybe four or five minutes per day.

You’d be surprised how many everyday activities and events fall on the too-loud side of the line. Some common culprits include:

  • Concerts
  • Movie theaters
  • Fitness classes
  • Fireworks shows
  • Motorized tools like lawnmowers, snow blowers and weed whackers
  • Motorsports (including snowmobiles, jet skis and motorcycles)

What’s the best way to protect yourself from the onslaught of sounds? Ear protection falls in two main categories.

Earmuffs

Earmuffs cover the entire ear like a pair of old-school headphones. They’re not exactly discrete (or stylish), but they are effective.

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  • Active earmuffs have electronics to amplify ambient sounds like conversations and block loud, potentially dangerous noise. They’re great if you’re a sport shooter or work in a loud environment like a manufacturing plant.
  • Passive earmuffs muffle the sound with no electronic bells or whistles. To be effective, they have to form a tight seal around your ear, Dr. Sandridge says. That means you can’t slap them on over a pair of earbuds. (If you want to listen to music while you mow the lawn, look for earmuffs with an audio-input jack instead.)

Earplugs

“Earplugs are a mixed bag,” Dr. Sandridge says.

  • Foam earplugs are cheap and easy, but they often don’t fit very well. Lots of people give up on earplugs because the foam variety can be uncomfortable and make everything unpleasantly muffled, she says.
  • Musician earplugs are Dr. Sandridge’s ear protection of choice. They slip into the ear canal so are less obvious than earmuffs. Plus, they lower the sound intensity while still allowing sounds like speech and music to filter through clearly. “It’s like turning down the volume instead of dulling the sounds,” she says.

For all earplugs, fit is key. “When you insert them, you should hear a ‘shooosh’ as the sound suddenly dies down,” she says. “You might need to experiment to find ones that fit well. If they don’t fit properly, you might as well not use them at all as they provide little to no protection.”

So go ahead and start an earplugs trend. Your future self will be glad to hear it.  

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