In this fall’s hit film A Star Is Born, one of the main characters deals with health issues that affect millions in real life. Played by Bradley Cooper, musician Jackson Maine struggles with both tinnitus — an incurable perception of noise, or ringing in the ears or head — and hearing loss.
If you’re around loud sounds, you should know that you, too, could be at risk for tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss. These sounds can show up anywhere, from your favorite sporting events to concerts and bars.
“There are quite a lot of sounds in our environment that potentially could cause damage,” says Catherine Palmer, Ph.D., director of audiology and hearing aids at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It can be years before you start to notice the effects.”
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The facts: Sounds are measured in decibels (dB). Those higher than 85 dB can permanently damage the hair cells in your inner ear with extended exposure, leading to hearing loss or damage. In general, the louder the noise, the less exposure time needed before damage occurs. The typical conversation — at about 60 decibels — is below the threshold. The average power lawnmower — at about 90 decibels — can cause damage within hours.
But a single loud blast, like from firearms or fireworks — which can be 140 dB or higher — can cause damage right away.
“Noise-induced hearing loss is a really under-recognized problem, and it can happen at really young ages,” says Daniel Q. Sun, M.D., an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Hearing tests are not part of routine screening unless there was some medical concern,” he adds, and many people don’t realize they have hearing loss — especially during early stages.
But hearing loss is on the rise and is now “a public health epidemic,” with about 48 million Americans dealing with it, Hearing Health Foundation reports. Unless action is taken, there will be nearly 630 million people with disabling hearing loss by 2030, and by 2050 the number could rise to more than 900 million, the World Health Organization estimates in a 2018 report.
Meanwhile, more than 50 million Americans have some form of tinnitus, the American Tinnitus Association reports, including celebs like Chris Martin and Eric Clapton. (Other causes can include blockages in the ear canal or head and neck trauma, and men get tinnitus more than women, according to the association.)
Take association board member David Hadley, 34, who’s in a rock band in San Francisco for fun. After playing music in his teens, he says he started developing tinnitus around age 21, when he’d hear ringing in his ears before going to sleep. The high-pitched ringing has since gotten louder — “it’s been challenging,” he says — and he’s become extra careful about ear protection so it doesn’t get worse.
The good news? (We know you need it.) “Sound-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable,” Palmer says, unlike other causes. So consider the following tips.
Be alert. With hearing loss, the first thing many people start to notice is not hearing as well in crowds, Palmer explains. If you suspect hearing loss or damage, or have related questions, consult an audiologist or other knowledgeable health care provider. An audiologist can give a full evaluation of your hearing system and a tailored plan.
Turn down the volume. When you can control sound — say, with your phone, or in your car — don’t listen at high levels. If you’re ever unsure about whether your environment is too loud, consider a sound level meter app to help, says Palmer. And if you’re unsure about levels via headphones, an audiologist can measure sounds from your device.
Wear ear protection. This is especially important if you have a loud workplace, says Palmer. Musicians, for instance, often wear in-ear monitors. Or they (and others) may choose “musician’s earplugs,” which help protect hearing while allowing for accuracy of sound. Depending on your needs, you can order custom earplugs or buy over-the-counter, says Palmer. Some are so small they’re hard to see when inserted, adds Hadley. You also can wear noise-canceling headphones in loud spaces. If you’re taking the subway, for instance — Hearing Health Foundation recently found New York City subway levels as high as 120 decibels on rides — you might be wearing these headphones anyway.
Step away. Leave loud spaces or get distance when possible. It might seem okay to chill out near club speakers, but if you do it over time your hearing could suffer.
Reduce exposure time. If you must listen to loud sounds, don’t make it a habit. “If a song you love comes on the radio, you may turn it up […] and then turn it back down when it’s over,” Palmer says. Adds Hadley: “Noise is everywhere around us, and you need to be vigilant and aware.” So if you update a few habits now—which is totally doable—it can benefit your future.
Leslie Quander Wooldridge is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC, and often reports on health and lifestyle topics. Find her on Instagram or at lesliequander.com.
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