Doctors worry that the steady onslaught of booming music, especially through earbuds, can damage the hearing of a generation wired for sound. However, the affected will not realize it right away – not until hearing loss takes over years later.
Thanks to the smartphone revolution that has taken the entire world by storm, more than one billion young people are at risk of hearing loss. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), the ever-increasing use of personal audio devices, like headphones and earbuds, and the booming levels of sound at entertainment venues where noise levels can go beyond 120 decibels for several hours, can cause irreversible damage to the ears.
According to Dr. Sreekant Cherukuri, an ENT specialist from Munster, Indiana, and founder of MD Hearing Aid, the largest cause of hearing damage is probably the use of earbuds. This one factor is the reason why hearing loss among today’s teenagers is about 30 percent higher than in the 1980s and 1990s.
The battery life of Walkmans in the 1980s and the speaker quality of those days did not allow for either very loud music or prolonged listening. But technology has long broken those barriers. Today’s smartphone-wielding youngsters can listen to really loud music for hours on end. And when the battery finally dies, they have back-up batteries.
There is no escaping the sound invasion.
The thing is, with earbuds, the sound source is closer to the eardrum and this enhances the volume by as much as nine decibels. The damage happens when sound travels from the earbud to the inner ear, where some 20,000 hair cells transmit the sound to the brain. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), just 15 minutes of continuous listening through earbuds, at a volume that is just half of what most smartphones deliver, is enough to damage hair cells in the ear and even kill them.
It’s irreversible damage.
A research study published in 2014 revealed that along with the hair cells in the inner ear, nerve synapses can also be vulnerable to damage.
In the study, researchers noted that when young animals were exposed to loud noise, even just once, within minutes of exposure the points between the hair cells and the neurons were injured and the loss was permanent. It also sped up hearing loss later in life. To diminish the threat of hearing loss in later life, experts have come up with the 60/60 rule. The idea is to keep the volume on the MP3 player under 60 percent and only listen for a maximum of 60 minutes a day.
Tips to protect your hearing when listening to music
The risk of damage to your hearing when listening to music depends on:
- The volume of the music
- The distance of your ears from the music source
- The time of exposure
Of course, there are some jobs or activities where all of the above are an occupational hazard. For example, being a musician, a sound engineer, an airport marshal, working at a nightclub, etc., puts you in a high sound environment for prolonged periods. In such cases, extreme care must be taken to protect your ears.
The main tip to reduce long-term noise damage is to use earplugs. There are two types of earplugs available on the market: foam or silicone. They will muffle sounds and voices, but may fit poorly, so if you are in a high-noise job, investing in custom-fit musician earplugs will pay off in the long run.
Other preventive tips to manage hearing in high-noise areas
- Sit at least 10 feet away from speakers
- Take breaks in quiet areas – limit your time around loud noises
- Move around the venue to find a quieter spot
- Avoid having others shout in your ear to be heard
- Steer clear of alcohol as it can make you unaware of the pain caused by louder sounds
- Rest your ears for 24 hours after exposure to loud music
- Follow the 60/60 rule – as mentioned above
- Decrease the time spent using listening devices
- Do not use noise-cancelling headphones
- Do not share your earbuds with anybody to avoid the spread of ear infections
Remember, if the volume in your headphones is loud enough that a person standing near you can hear the music, it’s way too loud.
Other risk factors for hearing loss
While loud noises are one of the main reasons for hearing loss, there are other factors that could come into play, too. Some of the more common ones are:
- Aging: Years take their toll on your ears. Exposure to chemicals, pollution, loud sounds, and even poor diet can cause free radical damage in your ears and lead to poor hearing and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
- Heredity: If your parents have hearing problems handed down from their parents, there is a very good chance you will be affected, too. The magic of the genes will make you more susceptible.
- Drugs: Some medications like gentamicin, aspirin, certain pain relievers, antimalarial drugs, and certain chemotherapy drugs can damage the inner ear.
- Illnesses: Diseases or illnesses, such as meningitis, that result in high fever may damage the cochlea. Also, any disease that hampers your circulation will indirectly affect your hearing.
Right now, your hearing may be intact, so you may not realize the importance of hearing. But loss of hearing can be as frustrating as loss of vision. It can rob you of your independence and make life a living hell for you and your loved ones. All you need to do to prevent that from happening is start taking a little care. For starters, throw those earbuds/headphones away.