If you have ever been at a concert and found yourself thinking “This music is simply too loud,” it doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’ve gotten too old for this sort of entertainment. It could mean that your body is attempting to tell you something – that you’re in a place that may damage your ability to hear. If following the concert your ears are ringing (tinnitus), or you’re not able to hear quite as well for a few days, you’ve probably experienced NIHL – noise-induced hearing loss.
This can happen even after brief exposures to loud noises, and arises because high decibel sounds can result in physical damage to the small hair cells that receive auditory signals in the inner ear and send them to the brain, where they are interpreted as sounds. In most cases, the NIHL resulting from one single exposure to really very loud noise or music is temporary, and should go away within a couple of days. However repeated exposure to loud sounds can cause the impairment to become permanent and result in tinnitus that never goes away or in a significant loss of hearing.
A pair of factors determine how much damage is done to hearing by contact with very loud sounds – exactly how loud the noises are, and the period of time you are exposed to them. The volume of sound is measured in decibels, a scale that is somewhat illusory because it is logarithmic, meaning that each increase of 10 on the scale means that the noise is two times as loud. Thus the noise of busy urban traffic (85 decibels) isn’t just a little bit louder than the sound of normal speech (65 decibels), it’s four times as loud. The decibel rating at ordinary rock concerts is 115, which means these noise levels are ten times louder than standard speech. The other factor that impacts how much hearing damage arises from loud music is the length of time you are exposed to it, what audiologists call the permissible exposure time. For example, contact with noises of 85 decibels can cause hearing loss after only eight hours. At 115 decibels the permissible exposure time before you face the possibility of hearing loss is less than a minute. Thus rock concerts are high risk, because the noise levels at some of them have been measured at greater than 140 decibels.
Projections from audiologists say that by the year 2050 up to fifty million people in America will have sustained hearing loss resulting from exposure to loud music. Bearing this in mind, many live concert promoters and music venues have started supplying sound-baffling earplugs to attendees for a small charge. One maker of ear plugs even created a partnership with a British rock band to supply its earplugs to fans at no cost. Notices are beginning to appear at music venues saying, “Earplugs are sexy!” Earplugs may, in reality, not be very sexy, but they might just save your valuable hearing.
Any of us can help you select a pair. We recommend getting them next time you’re intending go to a live concert.