JULY 5, 2019
Did you know up to 60% of all hearing loss is preventable?
This statistic comes from a recent World Health Organization article, which points to several different causes of preventable hearing loss i.e. bacterial and viral infections in middle and low-income countries. While our healthcare systems have kept these causes to a minimum, America is not immune to preventable hearing loss. This is largely due to the increased amount of noise that young Americans are exposed to. If you are someone who knows you’re exposed to a lot of noise we’re not here to tell you to stop. Instead, we want to help you continue to listen to music and continue to perform at high levels, but safely and with wisdom. The purpose of this blog post is to educate our readers on exactly this; having fun and performing with safety and with wisdom.
Estimates on how many of our young people are at risk for developing hearing loss continue to rise every year. As of March 2019, the World Health Organization estimates 1.1 billion young people worldwide (ages 12-35) are at risk of hearing loss as a direct result from recreational noise exposure. So, what exactly does that mean? How does the WHO define “risk”? And what is an “unsafe listening level”? Do we the people actually need to be proactive and do something about this?
Occupational Safety and Health Administration Sound Safety Standards
Let’s start by discussing what it means to be “at risk” for developing hearing loss. Anyone who is exposed to an unsafe level of noise is considered to “at risk” of developing hearing loss. There are a few organizations that set standards and define these “at risk” or “unsafe listening levels”. You may be familiar with them: OSHA and NIOSH. OSHA stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Both organizations exist to ensure that workers and employees are protected against working conditions that could diminish, affect or alter their physical health and quality of life.
“The average rock concert reaches intensities between 100-115 dB. OSHA states that you can be exposed to 100 dB for 2 hours, 105 dB for 1 hour, 110 dB for 30 minutes, and 115 dB for 15 minutes.”
When it comes to noise, OSHA has more relaxed criteria than NIOSH, which means that OSHA suggests people can be exposed to slightly louder levels than what NIOSH recommends. For the purposes of this article and all our future posts we will use OSHA recommendations, but just know that some researchers believe hearing loss can occur at even lower levels than what OSHA recommends.
Unsafe levels are defined by two things: loudness and duration of exposure. It’s one thing to be exposed to a loud sound, but it is another to be exposed to that loud sound over a long period of time. In one scenario, you might be exposed to a sound that is uncomfortably loud (i.e. 115 dB), but if you aren’t exposed to it for long enough you might not be at risk for hearing loss. Similarly, if you are exposed to a sound that is loud, but doesn’t hurt, you could still be at risk for hearing loss if you listen to it long enough.
The WHO article referenced earlier suggests that 1.1 billion young individuals are exposed to sounds that meet both the loudness and time requirements to be classified as an “at risk” level. As a hearing healthcare expert, I couldn’t agree more. The average rock concert reaches intensities between 100-115 dB. OSHA states that you can be exposed to 100 dB for 2 hours, 105 dB for 1 hour, 110 dB for 30 minutes, and 115 dB for 15 minutes. If you do the math this means that the average concert continually flirts with being on the unsafe level. Add in listening to music on your iPod and other environmental noises and your average young person is always living on the edge of risk for hearing loss. I could probably keep going and throw out more statistics and numbers, but I’m afraid I’d lose you if I haven’t already. Instead, let’s shift the focus on what you need to do to protect your hearing and prolong the fun.
Custom Hearing Protection Devices
In this section I’d like to discuss some of the best practical steps you can take and some of the best devices you can get to protect your hearing.
1. First, when streaming music through your phone keep the volume at 50% and under and take 10 minute breaks from listening to music every 50 minutes. This is more of a general rule of thumb and some exceptions exist.
2. Second, invest in some noise cancelling headphones. We often compensate for background noise by turning up our earbuds. With noise cancelling headphones you wont need to make your music as loud to get the same experience. Added bonus: noise cancelling headphones are more comfortable and look cool. Go for it!
3. Third, when you are in loud environments don’t hesitate to take some extra precautions to protect against background noise*. Below are some devices you may want to consider purchasing.
Disclaimer: hearing protection is not going to keep you from being able to hear your friends at social environments. I recently fit a friend with a pair of custom earplugs and he could hear me whisper. The products we recommend below both come with filters that preserve the natural soundscape so that you can still hear, understand, and enjoy your surroundings!
*This step is highly recommended for serious musicians when they attend clubs, extremely loud restaurants, and concerts when they are not practicing or performing (this recommendation comes from the duration component discussed above).
Best Option: Custom Musician Earplug
Musician earplugs are designed to be an exact fit for the shape of your ear. If required, they could be comfortably worn all day. In addition to fit, they are designed with a specific function; to preserve the soundscape so that it still sounds natural. These earplugs come with an option for 3 different attenuation levels: low, medium, and high. If you think you need more than one level, filters are easily interchangeable!
Call us today at (615) 454-3187 if you have any questions about these devices (i.e. cost or ordering)!
Best Budget Option: Westone Tru Universals or Similar Product
In the Hearing Protection world, Universal means “non-custom” or “one-size-fits-all” and this is exactly what these are. These devices are much more affordable at ~$40 and are recommended for individuals who need ear protection, but are struggling financially. These devices come with various filters just like the Custom products. While more economical, these devices do come with some common complaints. Many people complain about the devices falling out, creating sore spots, or just being plain old uncomfortable. If you are an individual who often struggles to find a comfortable earbud for headphones, then you likely want to consider the custom products.
So, what holds people back from buying custom hearing protection? Let’s examine and debunk some of the common excuses.
Myth 1: “I won’t be able to hear my friends if I have earplugs in.”
One of the most common fears we hear from our patients and one of the most common fears that prevent people from investing in hearing protection is that they think they won’t be able to carry out a conversation with their friends. We understand where this fear comes from, but thankfully this isn’t the reality.
The reason people go to clubs is to socialize. The thought is that if there is something in your ear, then you won’t be able to hear people. However, you might actually be able to hear better with ear protection in. When sound reaches a certain volume your hearing organ actually has a hard time processing it. Even with the best speaker system in the world distortion in your ear will happen. When you wear ear protection you’re not blocking out all sound, you’re simply reducing the volume of it to a point that is more comfortable and safer.
Myth 2: “They’re expensive!”
In simple monetary terms, entry level devices are really not that expensive. You can find good quality ear protection for as little as $15-$45. Keep in mind, just because you can get something for cheap, it doesn’t mean you should. I find that spending a little extra money goes a long ways.
Another way of looking at this debate is to consider the long-term cost of not protecting your ears and losing your hearing. In the long-run, by not protecting your hearing, your relationships with your spouse and your children will suffer.
If for some strange reason your reaction to this is to say, “I’ll just get hearing aids,” well I have some unfortunate news for you. 1) Hearing Aids are not perfect and they will not restore your hearing to normal, and 2) Hearing Aids are far more expensive than hearing protection. 1 pair of hearing aids is equal to 27 pairs of highly-customized filtered ear plugs!!! This means one pair of Hearing Aids is the same cost as a lifetime supply of Custom Hearing Protection!
Myth 3: “Earplugs are uncomfortable and hurt my ears.”
This is a very valid excuse, however, if this is the case for you then it may be worth it to invest in a pair of Custom molded filtered ear plugs. These not only provide you with the best sound experience, but they’re also the most comfortable and people sometimes wear them all day without any issues.
You will not get the comfort you need at a cheap price. For people with small bendy ear canals, custom hearing protection may be the solution to all of your problems.
Take your first step today and invest in protecting your future.
Thank You for taking time to read our blog post today! Stay tuned for our next article!
Dr. Michael P. Cleary, Au.D.