The reality of hearing damage won’t be music to the ears of tune-loving teens and tweens addicted to their personal music devices (or loud music in any situation), but the fact is exposure to recreational loud noise is a major cause of hearing loss in Australia.
The World Health Organisation says 50 per cent of teenagers are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening habits – and, alarmingly, only one-fifth are aware there is a risk.
Unfortunately, many young people will learn only once it’s too late that hearing damage from loud music is gradual and cumulative, taking place over several years. And the more young ears are exposed to loud sounds, the greater the damage – and it cannot be treated by medicines or surgery.
Now is the time to face the music – and tune into some healthier hearing habits.
How does loud music damage hearing?
Loud sounds do not have to be physically painful or annoying to be unsafe to your hearing. When ears are subjected to excessively and/or prolonged loud noise, it can permanently damage the sensitive cells in the cochlea in the inner ear, which starts to affect hearing of certain frequencies – particularly higher frequency sounds (a whistle, squeak or a child’s voice, for example). This can make it hard to have conversations, and to hear clearly, in noisy environments.
How loud is too loud?
The risk of damage to your hearing is based on two factors: how loud and for how long.
Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 85 decibels (dB) – about the level of a vacuum cleaner – over time can cause hearing loss and reports have shown that nearly 66% of people who use personal music devices are in fact listening to them at 85 dB or more.
By turning the volume down, you can listen for longer periods without harming your hearing. For example, if you stay below a sound level of 80 dB, you can listen safely for up to 40 hours per week.
The Australian Government’s Know Your Noise site offers the following examples of everyday sounds, and the length of time we can safely be exposed to these sounds before permanent damage is likely to occur. The louder the sound, the less time you can safely listen to it.
|Noise||Decibel Level||How long can you listen without protection?|
|Jet take off||130||0 minutes|
|Ambulance siren||109||Less than 2 minutes|
|Personal music player at maximum volume||106||3.75 minutes|
|Using an Electric drill||94||1 hour|
Common signs that you have been listening too loudly or for too long may include:
- Ringing, clicking, roaring, hissing or buzzing in your ears
- dull hearing after listening to loud music or removing headphones
- pain in your ears
- difficulty hearing in loud venues
- an increasing need to turn up the volume.
As a general rule, if you need to raise your voice to be understood, then the noise is probably too loud.
Tune in to safe listening habits
Noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented by simply adopting the following safe listening behaviours recommended by the World Health Organisation:
- Keep the volume down Listen to personal audio devices at a volume level below 60% of maximum.
- Limit the time your ears are exposed to loud music. Remember the 60:60 rule. Listen to your music at 60% of the device’s maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day.
- Protect your ears from loud sounds. Wear earplugs in noisy venues and put some distance between yourself and the speakers. Ear plugs can reduce sound levels by between 15 and 35 dBs.
- Use noise-cancelling or over-the-ear type headphones. These block out background noise more effectively than in-ear headphones, which means you can listen to music at a lower level.
- Limit time spent in noisy environments. Give your ears regular short breaks from loud noise and ‘quiet’ time to recover afterwards.
- Monitor listening levels. Use smartphone apps to monitor your sound exposure. Choose devices with built-in safe listening features.
When you should get help?
If your ears are exposed to loud music regularly, it’s important to have your ears checked if:
- you have persistent ringing (tinnitus) in one or both ears.
- you have difficulties hearing high-pitched sounds or following conversations.