How to protect your hearing in noisy environments

Man wearing headphones

If you’re exposed to high noise levels during your teenage and young adult years, you probably won’t experience hearing loss until you’re much older.

“Hearing loss takes decades to develop when it's noise related,” says Dr Elizabeth Beach from the National Acoustic Laboratories.

“There are more opportunities to be exposed to loud sound than ever before, with smartphones, headphones and music gigs which are consistently loud.”

We look at how you can protect your hearing while you’re young and prevent hearing loss.

What causes hearing loss

Loud sounds become damaging through both the amount of time you’re exposed to it, and the intensity of the sound.

So it pays to be careful with your “dose” of sound, says Dr Beach.

“The more noise exposure you have, and the longer you have it, the more likely you are to end up with hearing loss.”

It’s not just a matter of avoiding all sound above 85 decibels. It’s the amount of time you’re listening that matters, too.

As the intensity of the sound increases, you need to reduce your exposure time.

For instance, if you're in an 88 decibel environment, you can only be there safely for four hours. The safe exposure time drops to two hours in a 91 decibel environment, and only 15 minutes at 100 decibels – the typical sound level of a live band.

Who is most at risk

Men who are younger, with high school education or trade qualifications, and who live in regional or remote areas are most likely to be exposed to damaging levels of noise.

In fact, new research shows that nearly half of all men working in the construction industry are exposed to more than the full shift limit for noise on their most recent working day.

For people working in hospitality or entertainment, they’re at greatest risk of unprotected noise exposure and damaged hearing.

How to protect your hearing

“For people who are getting their sound from lots of different sources during the week, it's really important to consider how it all adds up,” Dr Beach says.

“Whenever you've got the opportunity, dial it down.

“If you're in an environment where you're experiencing pain in your ears, then that's clearly a sign that that environment is too loud. You either need to remove yourself or get earplugs as soon as you can.”

Limit the amount of time you’re exposed to loud noise

Be aware of how much noise you’re being exposed to over one day.

“There is only a limited amount of noise exposure that we can have in our lifetimes if we want to maintain our hearing into old age,” Dr Beach says.

“If you are a construction worker and you're also listening to loud music on your commute to work, then you're putting yourself at even greater risk on top of your occupational risk.”

If you are seeing a band, don’t stand right near the speakers. And if you’re spending days at a music festival, take breaks from loud music by going to chill-out zones and use earplugs.

“By putting earplugs in, you can prolong the amount of time that you can be there,” Dr Beach says.

If you’re listening to music through headphones in a loud environment, be aware of how loud the volume is.

Reduce noise at the source

At work: If your workplace plays loud music and you’re exposed to it for full shifts, talk to your manager about turning down the volume.

Workplace standards set a daily limit of exposure and while those working in traditionally loud environments are usually aware of the need to protect their hearing, people working full-time in other noisy environments, such as hospitality or retail , could unknowingly be over the workplace limit, Dr Beach says.

Listening to recorded music: If you’re listening to music through headphones or ear buds, get a good quality pair that fit well and have a good seal. Also consider noise cancelling headphones if your budget allows. It’ll make you less likely to turn up the volume to drown out background noise.

At concerts: If you’re seeing loud live music, use earplugs. They can reduce the sound level by 5-10 decibels, which makes a big difference to your exposure.

“We’ve done research which suggests that people would actually prefer music gigs to be slightly softer, but that message hasn't quite got through to venues,” Dr Beach says.

Choose earplugs with filters that are specially designed for listening to music. They can even improve the music quality because they cut out feedback, while preserving the sound quality.

“People find that they prefer to listen to music when they've got their earplugs in. Earplugs are a vital asset if you're a regular gig goer.”

Use noise-cancelling headphones

These are useful in high-noise environments.

Signs of hearing damage

There are two main signs of hearing damage:

Muffled hearing: if you've been in a loud place or exposed to a loud noise, you might have a muffled or full feeling in your ears, as though you can’t unblock them.

“That's a sign that you've been overexposed,” Dr Beach says.

Tinnitus: ringing in the ears after being exposed to very loud noise such as live music.

“Usually you wake up in the morning and it's gone, but sometimes it can persist for a day or two which can be quite scary,” Dr Beach says.

“That's a clear sign that the ears have been overexposed. And there is a risk that tinnitus will become permanent.

“It's a sign of an impaired hearing system. It's often associated with hearing loss, or it can be a precursor to hearing loss.”

As with hearing loss, you won’t know whether you're more or less susceptible to developing permanent tinnitus, Dr Beach says.

“If you're starting to have episodes of tinnitus, then that’s a wake-up call to start thinking about how to limit your exposure to reduce the chance of developing it permanently.”

Most people can cope with their tinnitus and learn to live with it, Beach says.

“But for some people, particularly in the early stages, it can be incredibly distressing to realise that they've lost the ability to experience silence. It's not something to be sneezed at.”

If you have any of these symptoms, see a GP or an accredited audiologist – you won’t need a referral to see one.

Dr Elizabeth Beach is the head of the behavioural sciences department at National Acoustic Laboratories in Sydney. Her current areas of research include the use of behavioural insights to improve client decision making, the impact of leisure noise exposure on hearing health, and methods for motivating people to change their hearing health behaviours.

CUA has a range of extras packages that cover some of the costs of audiology services and hearing devices.

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