Protecting your ears from noise-induced damage

As you're reconfiguring your music playlists in preparation for another summer concert season or breaking out the mower and leaf blower for some heavy-duty yard work, protecting your hearing may not be uppermost in your mind.

Listen up: It should be. Once upon a time, noise-riddled factories were the main source of noise-induced hearing damage. Today, say experts, there's a new culprit.

"Now we see younger people coming in with higher-frequency, noise-induced hearing loss from being in a band, going to lots of concerts and firing firearms," says Dick Sauer, a UW Health audiologist. "The problem has shifted from the workplace to the recreational area - and there's no requirement that people in recreational activities have to protect their ears."

Hearing damage is related to two things: loudness and length of exposure. So how loud is too loud? Anything above 85 decibels is considered damaging to the ear. (Leafblowers, rock concerts and cranked-up iPods all top out over 100 decibels.) On a more practical level, if you have to raise your voice or shout to be heard, the noise you're being exposed to may be harmful.

Warning signs include:

  • A muffled feeling in your ears that goes away in a couple days

  • Tinnitis — the constant ringing in your ear that signals temporary cochlear damage

"With limited exposure to loud noise, your ears will generally return to normal," says Sauer. "But if the ear is exposed for too long, eventually it won't recover."

Frequent exposure to excessive noise will combine with age to eventually lead to slow, high-frequency hearing loss - and as Sauer notes, that's the hardest kind to correct with a hearing aid.

New products, like an over-the-counter variety of musician's earplugs, can help protect ears at concerts without distorting the quality of the music's sound. And, of course, inexpensive roll-up earplugs can help at concerts or when working in the yard.

But the best advice remains the most simple.

"Turn it down. That's all you can do," says Sauer. "If you're hitting three to four concerts a week, and you're jogging with your music cranked up to the point where you can't hear the cars around you, you're asking for trouble."