April 24 marks International Noise Day.  It is a day that draws attention to the hazards of “noisy” environments.  Common noisemakers are our headphones. 

The first modern-day headphones were invented in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin. However, it was the debut of Sony’s Walkman in 1979 that catapulted the use of headphones. Interestingly, deemed as a new form of entertainment, the number of people who said they walked for exercise increased by 30% during the Walkman’s most popular period. Today, 80% of Americans listen to music too loudly when using headphones.  And there is a potential price we pay for this convenience.  

The consequence is hearing loss, and it is more common than ever before.  One in five teens has hearing loss; 30% higher than in the '80s and '90s.  If this continues, the potential ubiquity of hearing aids may equal that of eyeglasses.

Hearing loss caused by loud sounds is called noise-induced hearing loss, and it cannot be surgically or medically repaired.  There is permanent damage to nerves and structures of the ear.  Celebrity sufferers from noise-induced hearing loss include Former President Bill Clinton and Will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas who says that he never hears silence due to constant ringing in his ears.

Volume or sound pressure is measured in decibels (dB).  Here are some examples to put dB volume in perspective:

A whisper = 20 -30 dB.

A conversation with friends and families = 60 dB.

Our favorite R & B concert = 120 dB or louder.

A plane = 140 dB.

A rocket launching  = 180 dB.

Permanent damage can be caused by consistent volumes of 85 decibels or greater or a one-time sound of 120 decibels or greater.  Most headphones can produce sounds up to 120 decibels.   Time is also a determinant of hearing loss. The longer the duration of a loud sound, the higher the likelihood of hearing loss.

Most people are not aware if they are experiencing hearing loss since it is gradual. Some signs that you may not be hearing so well are:

  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus);
  • Difficulty understanding speech in noisy places or over background noise;
  • Misunderstanding what people are saying and asking to repeat what was said;
  • Listening to the TV, radio, or your headphones at a higher volume than before;

People repeatedly saying you are talking loudly.

We all can share the responsibility of ensuring good hearing health in our community.  Fortunately, many companies that sell and package headphones do alert buyers that noise levels at 85 decibels and above repeatedly can cause hearing loss. However, it is unclear how many consumers actually see or read the warning nor is it clear if people know if their headphone volume has reached the 85 decibels threshold.

What can you do? Prevention is the key word. Here are some tools to decrease your chances of hearing loss.

  • Simply turn down the volume. Most ears will adjust to lower volumes in one week.
  • Keep the maximum volume at 60% or lower.  In other words, no more than a little past the half way mark on the volume bar.
  • Decrease the amount of time that you listen with your music devices. 
  • If you cannot hear other people talking or if people have to shout for you to hear them within three feet of you, the volume is too loud.
  • Buy headphones that rest over the ear opening instead of earphones or ear buds that are placed directly in your ear.
  • Purchase headphones that only increase up to 85 decibels for adults and 65 decibels for children.
  • If you suspect hearing loss or are an avid headphone user, speak to your health care provider to have your ears tested.
  • Be your ‘brother’s keeper’. If you can hear someone else’s music from their headphones, their headphones are too loud.  You may want to nicely suggest they turn them down.

In honor of International Noise Day let's all slide our volume "to the left."  Remember once you have hearing loss, music will never sound the same.

Dr. Aletha Maybank is a Board Certified physician in both Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank.