Tips to protect yourself from noise induced hearing loss

by Nancy Salim

Protecting your hearing means not only knowing how loud something is, but also knowing how long it’s listened to.

Today’s audio devices can produce damaging sounds from 85 decibels (dB) to 136 decibels. The lower decibel range 85 is safer, but that’s not the full story. At 85 decibels, it is only safe if listened to for less than eight hours. That might seem like a long time, but studies show the average person spends almost nine hours a day on their electronic devices—that’s more than most people sleep! So it’s not a stretch to say individuals are exposed to dangerous noise levels daily.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Increasing the sound on personal technology by just 3 decibels, from 85 to 88, means it can only be listened to for half as long, just four hours. At 100 decibels—far from the highest range—the sound begins to damage hearing after fifteen minutes. At the highest sound level 136 decibels, damage occurs in less than one second.

The biggest threat to your hearing and how to protect yourself

Twenty six million people between the ages of 20 and 69 have noise-induced hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). And the World Health Organization warned that 1.1 billion teens and young people were at risk for noise induced hearing loss. A full 50% of young people in middle and high-income countries are at risk due to use of personal technologies. And hearing loss among kids ages 12 to 19 continues to increase, but often isn’t recognized until their twenties or thirties. That’s because the hearing screenings given to children through the school or at the pediatrician aren’t comprehensive enough to catch subtle fluctuations in hearing.

So how can adults and parents of young children and teens help protect their hearing? Below are a few tips.

Stress the importance of good hearing to teens and young people with simple guidelines. For example, instead of telling your teen about decibels and apps that measure how loud something is, you can explain that even with their headphones on they need to be able to hear people in the room. If they are listening to something at a level that blocks out all other sound than that is much too loud. Another simple guideline is to ask them to wear their headphones draped around their necks which puts the source of the noise further away. Also, try reminding them that their ears need to “stretch.” Meaning if they are sitting at the computer while listening to something and their body or neck begins to feel discomfort, that’s a sign to take a break from the activity. They can stretch their body at the same time they give their ears a break.

Ditch the earbuds for noise-cancelling headphones. Investing in noise-cancelling headphones might be one of the easiest ways to help turn down the volume. That’s because noise-cancelling headphones block out external sounds, so you don’t feel compelled to turn up the volume. And because these headphones have such rich sounds, you’ll find that you can actually enjoy the layered aspect of music or games without the higher volume. There’s even a bonus for parents of teens with these headphones–they’ve been shown to help students study.

Invest in custom made earplugs. Your audiologist can provide custom earplugs that stop destructive noises from passing onto the inner ear canal, but at the same time will allow you to hear other sounds. Here are some advantages of custom earplugs:

  • They last between three and five years. The silicone material used in custom earplugs usually lasts between three to five years, or longer, depending on care and handling—rinsing earplugs under warm water (use with a mild soap, no detergents or solvents) is often enough for cleaning.
  • They provide consistent protection and increased comfort for longer periods of time. A trained and experienced hearing care professional will take an impression of your ear and send it to the technicians at the manufacturer who will make the custom earplug. The end result? A custom earplug that fits comfortably and provides the desired amount of noise reduction.
  • They can be made to fit any size ear. Custom earplugs can be made to fit any size ear—even ears that have unusual shapes due to birth trauma, disease or surgery.
  • They’re easily replaceable. Ear impressions are kept for five years, so if the earplug is lost or damaged, it can be replaced without a new impression. Contact the manufacturer or clinic for a replacement.
  • They have many filters depending on the noise-exposure environment. Custom earplugs can be made with filters so that the amount and type of noise reduction delivered is exactly what is needed. While a solid custom earplug may provide about 25 to 30 dB of noise reduction, filters can be inserted into a bore drilled through the earplug to allow its noise reduction to be lowered to a desired level.

Buy a pair of over the counter ear plugs. Non-custom earplugs are the most basic form of hearing protection and are available with specific filters for use in a variety of situations including at work, on airplanes, at parties and while asleep. When shopping for earplugs, keep in mind the comfort, durability and the noise reduction rating (NRR)—ranging from 15-35 decibels, the higher the NRR the better at masking noise. Plugs can be made out of:

  • Memory foam: where the plug is rolled up and inserted into the ear canal
  • Silicone: which is rolled into a ball and pressed into the ear to mold over the ear canal
  • Flanged: where they achieve a seal down to their tapered shape
  • Tapered ear plugs: inserted into the ear to obtain a seal against the noise

Here are some advantage of using non-custom earplugs:

  • They’re inexpensive, disposable and hygienic. A box of 200 pairs of disposable earplugs can cost less than $30.00 USD.
  • They’re readily available at worksites. According to the United States Department of Labor, employers are required to provide hearing protection for noise-exposed employees. To find out more about this particular law, read more here. 
  • They may provide as much protection as some custom earplugs if inserted correctly. Following the instructions on the package will ensure you get the most amount of noise reduction. If the instructions aren’t clear, watch a YouTube video or search online for the correct usage.
  • Specialty disposable earplugs have a filter that can be set to protect your hearing in different listening environments. Although more expensive than conventional earplugs, specialty disposable earplugs come with filters that protect against sudden noise such as weapons fire which may be a better option for those exposed to bursts of loud noise.

Try ear muffs or defenders. Lined with sound-deadening material or acoustic foam they absorb sound waves by increasing air resistance, which reduces the amplitude of the sound waves to protect hearing.

If you experience ringing in your ears or speech sounds muffled, get your hearing checked. Find a clinic and book a free hearing screening today.

Find a hearing provider