Every year, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) celebrates Better Hearing & Speech Month (BHSM) to spread awareness of communication disorders—like hearing loss. This is a time to reflect on our hearing health, and think about whether we’re doing our best to prevent hearing loss and/or seek the treatment we might need to promote our hearing health!
This year’s theme is “Connecting People,” and isn’t that really what hearing loss prevention and treatment is all about? Our hearing is the primary way that most of us communicate with others, and maintaining it is key to maintaining the relationships that are important to us.
Safe Listening for Life!
It’s easy to become nonchalant about protecting our hearing, especially when we’re chronically overexposed. Modern life is noisy! If there are places in our routines where noise exposure is dangerous, it’s always a good time to reevaluate our approach to things and start protecting our hearing!
About Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)
Noise-induced hearing loss, or “NIHL,” affects one out of eight school-aged children (6–19) and one out of four adults up to age 69. While NIHL is completely preventable, it is also irreversible. Once it sets in, it never goes away.
NIHL happens when we are exposed to sound that is too loud for too long, and too often. In general, sound that is at or below 70 dBA (decibels A-weighted) is considered safe. 70 dBA is about the volume level of a group of people talking, or an alarm clock.
When sound reaches 85 dBA—about the noise level of a gas-powered lawn mower—it can cause hearing loss after about 8 hours of continuous exposure. We might think, “Well I don’t mow the lawn for 8 hours… I’ll be fine.” But it’s not just that one activity. All day, we encounter sounds from various sources that might be at or above 85 dBA, and that can add up to hearing loss in the course of a day.
For every additional 3 dBA above 85 dBA, the safe period of exposure is cut in half. That means by the time we reach 100 dBA, hearing loss can set in after only 15 minutes. It is not uncommon to experience sound levels at or above 100 dBA—such as a high school dance, or a motorcycle engine. Music performances, be they symphonies or rock concerts, also easily exceed safe listening levels, and tend to last longer than a quarter hour!
Personal Listening Devices (PLDs)
Personal listening devices, or PLDs, are oft-maligned gadgets that let us listen to music in earbuds or headphones. Our smartphones might be considered PLDs, and there are also myriad dedicated playback devices on the market. While they are not as bad as some people imagine, they do require some caution. The important thing with PLDs is to make sure we’re never listening too loudly… and that isn’t always easy.
If the sound around us is already loud, then our PLDs need to be set to overcome that loud volume. While a set of earbuds or headphones might attenuate (lower) the amount of sound coming in from the environment a little bit, it is not often enough to result in a safe listening level once the desired media is set at an intelligible volume.
Here are a few tips for safely enjoying music or other media on your PLD:
- Keep the Volume Down! – In general, above halfway should be considered too loud. It’s best to keep it even lower if possible, or take frequent breaks from listening if not. When you set the volume on your PLD, turn it all the way down, and then slowly turn it up until it is just loud enough for you to hear the material comfortably.
- Take Frequent Breaks – Even if your volume is set low, it’s a good idea to give yourself a break at least once every hour. Let your ears rest and recalibrate for 5–10 minutes and then resume.
- Consider Noise-Canceling Technology – Active noise-canceling is available in both headphones and earbuds. By canceling out the environmental sound, you can set the volume on your PLD lower and still hear it comfortably. Active noise-canceling can also be used even when you’re not listening to any actual media content, just to provide some peace and quiet. While these should not be used in place of earplugs or earmuffs when environmental sound reaches dangerous levels, they can help reduce the overall impact that noise has on our ears—and our brains—over the course of a day.