Ear buds may be clutch while you’re on the elliptical or the treadmill, but they’re also dangerous as far as the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is concerned: A public education campaign is in the works to warn New Yorkers about the risks of listening to personal music players at excessive volumes.
About 15 percent of Americans ages 20 to 69 have high-frequency hearing loss that may be a result of exposure to loud sounds, either on the job or during leisure activities, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Noise exposure can wear down the hair cells of your ear’s cochlea, eventually causing hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ear). Some people are more susceptible than others—research suggests that genetic and medical factors play a part—but experts say that anything louder than 85 decibels can cause damage after prolonged exposure.
Here’s the thing: Even sounds made by household objects like hair dryers and kitchen blenders can tip past 85 decibels. “Anything that makes you raise your voice to be able talk to somebody an arm’s length away is probably above 85 decibels,” says Deanna Meinke, PhD, an audiologist and associate professor of audiology at the University of Northern Colorado. So when you regularly listen to your headphones at a high volume, spend time in loud clubs and bars, or attend concerts (which can average 110 decibels), you risk doing permanent damage.
The good news? You can take steps now to prevent noise-induced hearing loss down the road:
“A baseline hearing test can identify early damage even in someone who hears normally,” says Hannah Shonfield, an audiologist and supervisor of audiology at the Weill Cornell Medical College Hearing and Speech Center. Visit an audiologist for the test, and then schedule follow-up visits about every three years (presuming everything’s normal at the appointment and you don’t notice any changes in the meantime).
Do the “silent room” check
Since different music players have different output levels, experts can’t say, for example, that your MP3 player volume should never exceed a certain percentage of what your device can produce. To find a good limit for your volume, try this trick: Sit in a quiet room, put your headphones in, and find the maximum volume that’s still comfortable to listen to. Then never turn the music up past that level, no matter how hard it may be to hear your music on a busy street, at a train station, or in the mall. “The misconception is, ‘If I can’t hear my music, I can turn it up over the noise,” says Shonfield. “But the end result is the same. If you were to play that loudness level in your quiet bedroom, you would yank the headphones out of your ears and scream. It would be painful because it was so loud.”
Get ear-friendly gear
Noise-cancelling headphones and noise-isolating ear buds don’t run cheap, but if you can swing it, consider making the purchase. The less your music is competing with the noise around you, the lower you’ll set the volume level, and the better it is for your ears. Also, if you’re heading to a concert or know you’ll be around a construction site, definitely pick up some earplugs from the drug store—they’re super cheap. Shonfield even recommends giving them a try at a packed club or bar. “Girls with long hair can wear them and no one will know,” she says. Not thrilled about accessorizing with neon pieces of foam? Custom-made earplugs made by an audiologist are much more discreet. They’re expensive, but if you’re a musician or you’re regularly in a noisy environment, they might be worth the investment.
Take a cue from your surroundings
Even heavy traffic noise can reach unsafe decibel levels. “A fire truck siren, a subway train barreling through the station, a bus letting air out of its tires to let a passenger on—that can all be additive,” says Shonfield. If you live in a city, you might want to wear earplugs for your commute (noise-isolating ear buds or headphones won’t cut it—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they’re not appropriate hearing protection devices). If nothing else, be sure to plug your ears when you’re passing a jackhammer or you see a train approaching the platform.