Alison M. Grimes, Director of Audiology and Newborn Hearing Screening at UCLA Health, says that two main factors contribute to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL): how loud the sound is and the duration of that sound.
“To further complicate things, different people have different susceptibility to NIHL,” Grimes adds. “Some people have tough ears and they can listen to loud sound for an hour without damaging their hearing.” Others, not so much.
Unfortunately, there’s no way for people to know if they’re blessed with so-called tough ears, and researchers are still trying to find out why some are less susceptible to noise-induced damage. Research has shown a link between eye color and NIHL risk, and Grimes says there’s some data showing that people with light blue eyes are more susceptible to NIHL than those with dark brown eyes, “but there are exceptions to every rule.”
No matter what your eye color is, you shouldn’t press your luck. The World Health Organization estimates 1.1 billion teens and young adults are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, largely because of two risk factors: “The unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars, and sporting events.”
“One of the tough things about hearing loss is that it tends to be gradual onset, almost imperceptible, and it’s cumulative,” warns Grimes. “It doesn’t happen suddenly. It’s slow and gradual”.
One culprit: People are not aware of how bad it is to use earbuds in noisy environments. The risk of ear damage increases sharply when they are trying to overcome background noise, says Lisa Christensen, Audiology Program Manager at Cook Children’s Medical Center and a member of the Audiology Association of America. “It sounds like a moderate level when you’re listening to it, but the problem is that it has to be so loud to get over the background noise that you far exceed a moderate volume.”
People often turn up their headphones 13 decibels higher than the background noise surrounding them. “When you’re using earbuds on a plane or train, you’re really pushing the limit of what’s safe. Some trains get up to 80 or 90 decibels loud. Then you’re pushing the limit 13 decibels over that, and that’s when it gets really dangerous.”
“If you’re listening to music in a noisy environment, the best thing to do is… don’t do it,” says Grimes. However, if you must listen to your own music in a noisy environment, the safest bet is to invest in some over-the-ear headphones. “Headphones themselves are noise canceling. You put them on, and even without a stimulus coming through the headphones, the world is infinitely quieter,” says Grimes. “When you put on the earbuds, the fit is not great. You still hear everything that’s going on around you. Someone is more likely to turn the volume up louder to drown out the outside sound.”
The earbuds’ fit is problematic for people of all ages. The design isn’t perfect, especially for kids and teens. “A child’s ear canal is so much smaller than an adult’s,” Grimes says. “We’re cramming regular-size earbuds in their ears, and it’s intensifying everything because the area is so much smaller, but the sound is still the same.”
While hearing loss is gradual and many people don’t recognize it until it’s too late, there are some telltale signs of damage. Just because those symptoms wear off in a few hours or a day, it doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. “The reality is, the damage was done on a cellular level. It just doesn’t rise to the level of being really obvious.”
This ringing in the ear, or tinnitus, is a problem Christensen is seeing more and more. “Right now, we see a ton of kids that come in with tinnitus, and I think one of the causes is earbud usage — and it’s not just music. It’s YouTube videos!” she says. Anything blasted directly into your ears, even talking on the phone with earbuds in, contributes to this, says Christensen. Once someone develops tinnitus, it doesn’t go away. It progresses and builds up until it’s impossible to ignore.
The scariest thing about hearing loss is that once you’ve lost it, you can’t get it back. While the technology behind hearing aids is great, both Grimes and Christensen admit they’ll never be as good as natural hearing.
Parents of earbud-loving kids can take some preventative measures. One of Christensen’s main pieces of advice for parents: Educate kids on the harsh reality of hearing loss. “You’ve got to teach them at an early age: What you do to your hearing now can cause problems later. Your hearing doesn’t come back once it’s gone.”
She also urges parents to encourage kids to take periodic breaks from using earbuds. (It’s crucial for adults, too.) Removing them for five minutes every half hour is her suggestion.
Regardless of earbud or headphone type, you can use parental controls on the iPhone to set volume limits so your kids can’t turn the volume up past the max volume you’ve set. Some Androids have built-in volume-limiting capability, but if your child’s doesn’t, you can download an app like Volume Limiter. And if you’ve got a self-control problem yourself, you might as well go ahead and set a limit on your own phone.
If you think that you or any of your loved ones have ringing in the ears or hearing loss, call Schmidt’s Optical and Hearing™ at 772-286-4327 to schedule a free hearing evaluation with our Board Certified Hearing Aid Specialist.