You may feel silly for pulling out earplugs or other forms of ear protection at a concert or another event, but doing so may help preserve your hearing. About 17 percent of adults have experienced noise-induced hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two kinds of noise, says audiologist Richard Tyler, PhD, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Continuous loud noise (like a lawnmower) or an impulsive noise (like the bang of a firework going off). Both, in certain instances, can lead to:
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Not all noise is damaging to your ears, of course. But sounds above 70 decibels (dB) for longer periods of time can cause hearing loss, per the CDC. For reference, normal talking is considered 60 dB, whereas a refrigerator hum is 40 dB. Over 70 dB and sounds become annoying at best (the din of city traffic) or, at worst, damaging (a motorcycle, lawnmowers, power tools).
The thing about hearing loss is that it often sneaks up on you. "Typically, when you're exposed to noise, especially continuous noise, you don't normally notice that you're losing your hearing until you've lost a substantial amount," Tyler says. "This is a gradual process," he says.
That means it's worth protecting your hearing. You're not going to stop going out to avoid noise, so one way to enjoy yourself and get everyday tasks done is to wear earplugs. Here's when your ears could use a pair:
1. Attending Concerts or Sporting Events
Whether it's loud music or the roar of the crowd, noise is high enough to hurt your ears, with sound reaching up to 100 to 110 dB, which can cause hearing loss after just five minutes of exposure.
While the noise levels depend on the venue and type of event, Tyler shares a good guideline to follow: If you have to raise your voice to talk to someone next to you, that indicates it's too loud and you should wear earplugs.
For an official reading, download and use a sound meter app on your phone to get a noise level reading.
2. At Bars or Noisy Restaurants
Some bars and restaurants are more relaxed, with people talking in normal voices. In other places, though, you have to shout at someone to be heard. These bars can also reach a dangerous 110 dB, and you should use earplugs then, too. The good news is that you should still be able to talk to people.
"When you wear earplugs, it attenuates the speech and sound, but the speech-to-noise ratio doesn't change," Tyler says. That is, it shouldn't be any harder to hear (than it already is!) with the earplugs in. Plus, if you're having a tough time with conversation, looking at a person's face is a big part of understanding what they're saying. Eye contact for the win.
3. While Doing Lawn Work
Ever try to have dinner al fresco when your neighbor is mowing their lawn? If it's too noisy for you, imagine what it's like if you're the one pushing the mower. Lawnmowers, leaf blowers and power tools are all powerful enough to cause hearing damage, per the CDC. Some of these can cause quick bursts of loud noise, so even if you're using these for a short amount of time, use earplugs.
Another option aside from earplugs are earmuffs, which typically are more effective than earplugs because they provide better ear coverage, Tyler says.
4. When There’s Brief, Loud Noise
If you've walked by a construction site — say, there's work being done on the sidewalk or street — you know how grating the sound of a jackhammer is. It's best to wear earplugs when walking by — at 130 dB, a jackhammer isn't safe for any period of time, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
Same goes for waiting for trains — the average noise on subway platforms reached 80.9 dB, according to a November 2017 comparative study published in the Journal of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery that examined noise levels during Toronto commutes on buses, trains and streetcars. Wear plugs when waiting for your ride, per ASHA.
Of course, you can't always be ready for these moments, but Tyler does keep a pair of earplugs in his back pocket so he can be prepared for any noise disturbance during the day.
5. Drying Your Hair
Using a hair dryer? ASHA recommends popping in earplugs. With 94 dB — and the source of the noise positioned so close to your ears — a hair dryer can cause damage to hearing.
6. While You Sleep
Not everyone needs earplugs to sleep, but if you're in an area with a lot of environmental noise, they may help you drown out the outside din that can disturb your sleep.
As long as you insert them correctly and you don't have any conditions, such as itching or drainage, that would preclude you from wearing them, earplugs should be safe to wear every night. Not sure which to use? Try these audiologist-recommended earplugs for sleeping.
How to Choose the Right Earplugs
No matter if you're going to wear earplugs or earmuffs, look at the noise reduction ratings (NRR) of the pair you'll purchase, Tyler says. These ratings indicate how effective they are at reducing sound. They should clearly call out how many dBs the earplugs will reduce noise. Earmuffs should also have an NRR, too.
Follow the instructions for wear. For foam earplugs (the kind you purchase in a drugstore), you'll generally want to follow these steps, per the CDC:
- Wash your hands.
- Roll the earplug into a thin tube.
- With your left hand, pull the top of your right ear up and back, then use your right hand to place the rolled-up earplug in the ear canal.
- Hold the earplug in place with a finger until it expands.
- Switch sides, and follow steps two through four for the opposite ear.
Once your earplugs are both in place, do your own experiment. Listen to noise while wearing the earplugs and then take them out and listen to the same noise. "You should be able to notice a dramatic change in the noise," Tyler says. With that, you should be good to go.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss"
- CDC: "What Noises Cause Hearing Loss?"
- American Journal of Public Health: "Noise Levels Associated With New York City's Mass Transit Systems"
- CDC: "How To Wear Soft Foam Earplugs"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tinnitus"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Hyperacusis"
- Journal of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery: "Noise exposure while commuting in Toronto - a study of personal and public transportation in Toronto"
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