While hearing loss frequently occurs in most people as we age, one of the most common causes of hearing loss is exposure to loud sounds. Estimates from the World Health Organization and CDC find that approximately ⅓ of hearing loss cases are caused by noise exposure. This certainly includes those of us working in noisy environments (think construction, auto mechanics, manufacturing). But even those of us that work in quiet environments can still experience recreational noise exposure.
It’s easy to imagine the noise exposure from certain “loud” hobbies like shooting, racing, and music festivals. Firing a rifle can expose your ears to up to nearly 170dB SPL of sound, while a day at the racetrack can expose you to 104dB SPL of noise. These are the kinds of situations where most of us are already aware of the need for hearing protection, like earplugs and earmuffs. But those aren’t the only sources of loud noise that we frequently subject our ears to.
Even more innocuous activities like mowing the lawn, listening to music through earbuds, and watching the latest superhero movie at the theater can also expose our ears to harmful noise levels. Does this mean you have to wear earplugs every time you leave the house? Of course not!
The best way to approach hearing protection is to stay conscious of how loud our environment is, and to take steps to not over-expose ourselves. OSHA recommends hearing protection if we find ourselves around an 80dB SPL sound (about as loud as a hairdryer) for more than 8 hours. But that can also depend on where the sound is coming from.
The amount of time you can safely spend around loud sounds decreases as the loudness of the sound increases. Standing next to a drag car engine (130dB) will damage your ears quicker than vacuuming (75dB) will. But, those noise levels are easier to tolerate as we move away from the sound source. So if we don’t have earplugs on hand, moving away from the source can also provide some protection.
Personally, I love listening to music. A lot. As in I rarely don’t have my earbuds in. My rule of thumb is to avoid increasing my phone’s streaming volume over 50%. A loud song every once in a while usually won’t instantly damage your ears, but continuous exposure to those levels can have some long lasting effects other than hearing loss and tinnitus.
So, mowing the lawn with a gas powered push mower? Good idea to break out the earplugs. Grabbing dinner at a bar with a live band? Maybe try grabbing a table further away from the speakers. Working out with your gym playlist on shuffle and that one song comes on? Bump up the volume and jam out! Just remember to knock it back down a few notches. Your ears will thank you in the long run.