Why You Are Damaging Your Hearing

You don’t need to go to music festivals or work on a building site to do irreversible damage to your hearing. Your smartphone can put out 100 decibels through your headphones, which you can only listen to for 20 minutes in an eight hour period before you damage your hearing.

According to hearing protection expert Stephen Wheatley: ‘hearing damage is a bit like smoking – it isn’t obvious and the effects are cumulative and permanent – you only notice once the damage has been done and then there’s no fix.’ So, giving your lugholes some TLC now will pay dividends in the future.

RSNG asked Wheatley for the best way to stop everyday life from damaging your hearing…

Let Your Device Be Your Guide
The colour-coded high volume warnings on your smartphone are there for a good reason, so don’t automatically override them – they are set not by nannying device makers but by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

‘A smartphone can output more than 100dB – and at that volume it’s only safe to listen for up to 20 minutes in any eight-hour period before your hearing is damaged. WHO recommendations are to limit your exposure to no more than 85dBA (A-weighted decibels) over any eight-hour period,’ says Wheatley.

‘London tube trains regularly hit 85dbB and one Central Line section gets to 110dB – as loud as a rock concert’

Don’t Listen In Noisy Environments
It can be soothing to plug your headphones in when travelling on a noisy train but consider your decibel diet when doing so. ‘You’ll probably find yourself nudging up the volume to block out the background noise so that you can hear clearly – we tend to listen at 6-10dB above the level of the background,’ says Wheatley.

London tube trains regularly hit 85dbB and one Central Line section gets to 110d, as loud as a rock concert – add headphones to that and the hearing damage is just around the corner.

Fortunately, there is a fix: ‘The best thing you can do when the background noise is high and you want to listen to something is to wear over-ear, preferably active noise-cancelling headphones that electronically reduce the background noise, letting you listen comfortably at lower, less harmful levels.’

Protect Your Hearing At Live Events
Whether you’re at a Grand Prix or a gig, noise is an essential ingredient of many live events. Protecting your ears at such events should be a no-brainer, ensuring you can enjoy them in the future too. ‘Sound levels at gigs are often more than 105dB and at a recent motor sport event the peak sound level was over 125dB! Exposure to these levels of sound will harm your hearing very quickly,’ warns Wheatley.

He says taking a leaf out of the pro’s playbook is the way forward. ‘Increasingly, professional musicians and their crew protect their hearing when they are performing using custom-moulded earplugs which reduce the sound level at the ear substantially, but don’t change the quality of the sound.’

Go pro yourself by getting a pair of custom-moulded ear plugs fitted with musician’s filters. They really do work, while letting you hear the detail of the music – they and knock those flimsy foam earplugs out of the park.

‘If you are a motorsport fan take a look round the paddock, everyone is wearing over ear hearing protection and the top teams also have active noise-cancelling as well,’ says Wheatley who also recommends taking regular breaks away from the noisiest spots.

Have Quiet Zones
Exposure to noise is calculated as an average over a 24-hour period, so making a conscious decision to have a quiet moment will help to bring your average down, and your ears will benefit from a period of no, or low, exposure to sound.

‘The obvious time to achieve this level of quiet is when you’re asleep, so make your bedroom environment as quiet as possible. If you live on a busy road, this may be tricky, but double glazing and heavy-duty blackout curtains can help – they don’t just block out the light,’ says Wheatley.

‘How long are you listening for, how loud is it and what’s the ‘energy’ content?’

Get To Know Your Dose
Another way to protect your hearing is to become aware of your daily sound energy dose. ‘How long are you listening for, how loud is it, and what’s the ‘energy’ content of what you are listening to?’

‘How does your sound dose compare with the hearing health recommendations? As a guide, electronic dance music is high energy – lots of beats, few gaps to recover – while speech, with lots of quiet pauses between words, is relatively low energy.’

When it comes to the experts at WHO and the Noise At Work regulations, Wheatly says that it can be seen that their figures suggest that the magic number is 80.22dB over a 24-hour period. ‘This is your Daily Sound Allowance (DSA®). If you can routinely stay below this level you should be safe.’ Wheatly is also CEO of HearAngel a technology that can automatically track and assess your sound exposure when using headphones.

Use Noise-Cancelling Headphones
‘If you use noise-cancelling headphones, you’ll find that in noisy environments you will listen at a lower volume, so you should be able to use your headphones three or four times longer each day, and you’ll be doing your long-term hearing a favour,’ says Wheatly.

Earpiece-type noise-cancelling headphones will reduce ambient noise by a factor of 10, over-ear ones by 20. So, you can imagine that if you are listening to music and are attempting to override background conversation (at 70dB) then you will only need to increase the volume by a smidge, rather than blasting your ears to make up the difference. ‘You’ll still have to listen at 6-10dB above the noise ‘floor’ (residual level), but as that will be much lower, the total listening level will be correspondingly lower.’

And they can even come in useful on that noisy commute, effectively blocking the damaging high decibels of a tube ride, even when you’re not playing any music…

WHAT NEXT? Like engine sounds? Check out these 2019 F1 engine sounds from each team.

Stephen Wheatley is CEO and a Co-Founder of HearAngel/ LimitEar Ltd, a company which develops technologies to protect the hearing of headphone users both at work and leisure. He is a technology specialist and has been awarded several patents for hearing safeguarding inventions for headphone users. Stephen is also a Co-founder, Director and Trustee of the UK Hearing Conservation Association and lead for the Lifestyle Special Interest Group.

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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.