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The everyday noise that can cause “hearing loss in minutes”

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For some people, listening to music helps them wake up in the morning, while others might prefer to put in their AirPods after a busy day at work to drown out the rest of the world.

Music is a great mood booster, and it’s often tempting to turn up the volume and blast it out. Doctor of audiology Amy Sarow told Newsweek that “volume level is key to help avoid damage to the auditory system.”

If a person regularly listens to music at a high volume, they could be damaging their hair cells which are found in the inner ear. So, to avoid hearing loss, Sarow, the lead audiologist at hearing aid marketplace Soundly, recommends keeping volume levels below 80 decibels for no more than eight hours a day.

Woman listening to music through headphones
A stock image of a woman listening to music outdoors through headphones. Audiologist Amy Sarow has spoken to Newsweek about the safe listening practices people should stick to in order to avoid hearing loss.
Bojana Javorac/Getty Images

“While there are differing opinions on safe listening levels, keeping volume levels at or below 80 decibels is safe for daily listening throughout the day. However, we need to limit time when exposure exceeds 80 decibels in order to prevent hearing loss.

“I would recommend limiting 80 decibels to no more than eight hours per day to prevent noise damage. Some examples of 80 decibels include blenders, garbage disposals, lawnmowers and heavy traffic.

“As sound is measured logarithmically, every increase of three decibels doubles the sound intensity, which cuts the maximum exposure time in half before damage occurs.”

Hearing Damage Can Occur in Less Than 15 Minutes

Listening to music or another type of audio at 80 decibels might work in most circumstances, but there are some occasions when you might want your music a bit louder. When you’re on the train and the person next to you won’t stop talking, it’s often tempting to increase the volume a few notches.

However, Sarow explained that while it’s easy to raise the volume on your cellphone or personal device, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to do so.

“With headphone volume, it’s essential to consider volume level and background noise level. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] does not regulate headphone volume, and the maximum volume on a smartphone often exceeds 100 decibels,” she told Newsweek.

“When there’s loud background noise, it can be tempting to turn the volume up to hear over the volume of the noise. Unfortunately, hearing damage at this volume can occur in less than 15 minutes.

“In the settings on the phone, it is best to limit volume to 60 to 70 percent of the maximum. Whether using earbuds or headphones, noise-canceling options help keep volume lower because ambient noise is reduced. I think a lot of people assume that the maximum volume must be safe, and they underestimate their listening volume.”

The Hearing Center of Excellence, which promotes hearing loss programs and prevention in the Department of Defense, highlights that noises that exceed 100 decibels include a bulldozer, impact wrench or a motorcycle. Events such as rock concerts or auto racing might be entertaining, but they’re potentially harmful because they’re in the range of 120 to 140 decibels.

The center adds that exposure to sounds higher than 110 decibels can lead to instant hearing loss, and hearing protection should be considered.

Audiologist Amy Sparrow from Soundly
Lead audiologist at Soundly, Amy Sarow. She has told Newsweek about the safe listening practices that people should adhere to.
Amy Sarow

Unsafe listening practices are having detrimental effects, as the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed in 2022 that more than a billion people between the ages of 12 to 35 are at risk of losing their hearing due to drawn-out and excessive exposure to loud music or other recreational sounds.

It’s thought that around 217 million Americans live with hearing loss. But if unsafe habits don’t change, the WHO estimates that it will rise to 322 million by the year 2050.

The behaviors that the WHO suggests lead to hearing damage include the unsafe use of personal audio devices, or exposure to damaging sound levels in nightclubs, bars and concerts. Any damage that is caused is permanent, but it’s also preventable.

Keeping volume levels below 100 decibels, wearing earplugs at noisy venues, and getting regular hearing checks are among the safe practices the WHO recommends.

The Effects of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

As an audiologist, Sarow has seen the effects of permanent hearing damage.

Some music lovers might have experienced ringing in their ears after a concert, which Sarow suggests is a sign of temporary damage to the auditory system. In temporary situations like this, the hair cells usually recover within 48 to 72 hours of the exposure.

She continued: “I’ve seen an increase in the number of young people with noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus [ringing in ears]. Noise-induced hearing loss is especially common among Gen Z and millennials, who often use headphones to listen to music, videos, or other audio.

“Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when the delicate structures, called hair cells, in the inner ear become damaged. When noise exposure is loud enough, such as from a gun blast near the ear, permanent hearing damage can occur within seconds.

“Healthy hair cells in the inner ear stand up nice and tall, like a field of wheat. After loud sound exposure, they look like a wheat field after a tornado. Noise exposure over time is cumulative and can also occur more gradually.”

Sarow insisted that “self-regulation is important” to prevent hearing loss, and people should avoid using the maximum volume on their devices.

“Once the damage is done, noise-induced hearing loss is permanent. Fortunately, awareness is growing, and there is more awareness about safe levels through technology, such as Apple Health with notifications about listening levels.”

Regardless of your music taste, whether you prefer throwing it back to the 80s, or you’re listening to Taylor Swift on repeat (Taylor’s Version, of course), it’s important to keep it at a safe and sustainable volume.

Is there a health issue that’s worrying you? Let us know via health@newsweek.com. We can ask experts for advice, and your story could be featured on Newsweek.

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