Whether sitting in a coffee shop, walking on a busy street or strolling around the mall, it seems like almost everyone has on headphones or has earbuds in their ears these days. Have you ever stopped to wonder what all of that music could be doing to their hearing? How loud is too loud for those headphones before a noise induced hearing loss begins to develop?
There is debate on the exact level of noise, but in general, most guidelines indicate that from as low as 70 dB to as high as 85 dB can begin to damage your hearing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends 8 hours or less exposure to an 85 dB sound in order to protect hearing of employees that work in noisy environments. Some common sounds around this range would be heavy traffic, a noisy restaurant, a toilet flushing or a vacuum cleaner running. Basically, the louder the noise volume, the less time you can listen to it before incurring damage to your hearing.
There are several steps you can take to protect your hearing. The first is to turn down the volume of your music so that you can comfortably hear it without it blasting in your ear. Oftentimes, when there is competing background noise (think subway car noise or a busy street), you will need to turn the volume up louder in order to hear the music well. One way to avoid this is to use noise-canceling headphones to block out background noise and allow you to turn down the volume of the music to a safe level. Also, never wear headphones or ear buds while mowing the lawn or using heavy equipment. Instead, you can purchase headphones with a noise reduction rating (NRR) to indicate the amount of hearing protection they offer. Oftentimes the hearing protection headphones can connect to your phone via Bluetooth or a cord and some even have AM/FM ratio included. I personally use the 3M Work tunes with an NRR of 24 dB while mowing the lawn to enable me to safely listen to music.
Another step to protect your hearing would be to set limits on the maximum volume of your cell phone or audio device. The iPhone does offer the ability to set a maximum volume limit for music. Simply go into Settings>Music>Volume Limit to make adjustments (I recommend about 75%).
Make sure to take listening breaks to give your ear time to recover from noise exposure. If you turn on your music in the morning and it sounds like it is blaring, that is a good indication that you were listening to it at a dangerous level when it was turned off. Also, if someone else can hear the music from your headphones then they are too loud. Unfortunately, once you lose your hearing, you cannot bring it back to normal so the best way to avoid a hearing loss is to limit your exposure to loud noise, including those personal headphones.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (2015). 29 CFR 1910.95, Occupational noise exposure. Washington, DC: OSHA, U.S. Department of Labor. Available from: https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9735.
Dr. McKenna Bellamy