You probably shield your skin with SPF and your eyes with sunnies, but how often do you grab earplugs before hitting a concert? The answer is: likely not enough. One in 5 Americans ages 20 to 29 already has hearing damage, according to new research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And 1.1 billion young people worldwide are at risk for hearing loss, per the World Health Organization. Most of the affected don’t even know it, which is distressing, since once you’ve lost any part of your hearing, it’s gone forever.
The culprit is, not surprisingly, technology and the ways we use it. Today’s earbuds may stay put during a run, but they cause more harm than traditional over-ear headphones. “Earbuds focus the noise right into your eardrum,” says Yulia Carroll, MD, senior medical officer at the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, “so the effect on your hearing is stronger.”
Meanwhile, 40 percent of young people ages 12 to 35 are regularly exposed to dangerous noise levels at concerts and sporting events. Nightclubs and bars pump music at intense volumes. And those craned beats that get you through cycling class? They may do wonders for your butt, but they’re wrecking your ears (research shows that some workout classes reach 94 decibels [dB], higher than the recommended noise-exposure limit of 85 dB).
Wherever you are, if noise is preventing you from hearing a friend standing a few feet away, it’s probably causing damage, says Dr. Carroll. We’re born with around 16,000 hair cells in each inner ear that help convert sound waves into electrical signals for the brain. These cells bend when exposed to sound, then straighten. But they’re like blades of grass: Step on them once and they bounce back; crush them constantly and you’ll kill the lawn. Trampled hair cells don’t regenerate.
One small bit of good news: noise-induced hearing loss is tied to both volume and duration. That means you’d have to listen to something at 85 decibels for eight straight hours to cause damage (see “How Loud Is Too Loud?” below). At levels over 100 dB, your window shrinks to 15 minutes.
5 Ways to Protect Your Ears
1. Know Your Noise Levels
Download an app like SoundMeter or Noise Hunter to track the decibel level around you — at concerts, in restaurants, and in techno-cardio classes.
2. Pump Down the Volume
You can still live life to a soundtrack if you follow the 60:60 rule: Listen at no more than 60 percent.
3. Abandon the Buds
We get it — they’re super convenient. But if you’re cranking the volume, your ears are suffering. Need to drown out background noise? Noise-canceling headphones are best for blocking ambient sound. (Look for a noise reduction rating, or NRR, or at least 9.)
4. Plug Them Up
Your best festival accessory? Ear plugs. (Look closely; The band and crew are wearing them.) Follow instructions on the packet to insert them properly—otherwise, they’re useless.
How Loud is Too Loud?
30dB: A whisper
60dB: A normal conversation
80dB: City traffic
85db: Recommended noise-exposure limit
90dB: A leaf blower at close range
110dB: Your headphones at max volume
115dB: A rock concert
130dB: A jet engine at takeoff (from the runway, not the cabin)