Does listening to loud music hurt my hearing?

Jogging with tunes

Happy times

Q: Since coming to college, I have been going to concerts and listening to music more often. I am worried about hearing loss. Am I at risk?

A: You have good reason to worry about your hearing. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is a condition that can cause permanent damage to the inner ear. It can occur after a very loud single event (like a bomb blast) or after repetitive exposure to moderately loud sounds. Going to loud concerts and listening to headphones too loud has been shown to lead to NIHL.

The intensity of sounds is measured in decibels. Whispering is in the neighborhood of 30 dB, while normal conversation is around 60-70 dB. A lawnmower puts out about 90 dB and an iPod at its highest setting cranks out 100 dB. The National Institute of Health has found that repetitive exposure to sounds greater than 85 dB can lead to NIHL. How loud is that? If you turn a stereo up to just loud enough so that you can have normal conversation over the music, it is roughly 85 dB.

There are two components involved with NIHL. The first is how loud the noise is, while the second is how long you’re exposed to it.  So what is a safe level of exposure?  It has been found to be safe to listen to iPods at 70 percent volume for 4 hours.

So what can you do to enjoy music and protect your hearing at the same time?

Most mp3 players now have options to lower the maximum volume, which is a good idea.  Purchasing noise-canceling headphones will reduce the need to turn up the volume because the ambient noise is too loud, but they’re pretty pricey.  A cheaper option would be larger ear-cup headphones that block out ambient noise better than ear buds.  If you frequent a lot of concerts, you should consider wearing earplugs – believe me, at 110-120dB (!!) you’ll still be able to enjoy the show.

Adam Brandeberry (Ohio State University College of Medicine)

Kathy Horava, MD (Ohio State University Student Health Services)