Loud headphones putting young people at risk for hearing damage

Young people are often unaware of how easy it is to cause themselves hearing damage when listening to music, says the president of the tinnitus association of Quebec.

“Right now more and more studies are published in the literature stating that the use of portable listening devices are too high,” said Sylvie Hébert.

Hébert, who is also professor of psychology in the School of Speech Therapy and Audiology at the University of Montreal, says the tinnitus association — known as Acouphènes Québec —  is seeing more people at a younger age with hearing problems.

“This can cause cumulative damage. Young people don’t realise it right away,” she said. “At some point they will have a high probability of having hearing loss and tinnitus.”

The World Health Organization says 1.1 billion teenagers are at risk of developing damage or hearing loss “due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices and exposure to damaging levels of sound in noisy entertainment venues.” 

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Hearing damage can take years to develop, but people are being diagnosed with hearing problems at younger and younger ages. (Shutterstock / riekephotos)

Damage is permanent

When the ear is exposed to very loud sounds, Hébert said, the delicate hair cells in the inner ear are damaged.

“Once they’re damaged they’re gone, they’re destroyed and they don’t regenerate.”

Hearing aids can will amplify the sound, but they cannot replicate the clarity and sound quality provided by hair cells.

“If you go to a dance club, and you are exposed to very loud music, as soon as you get out of the dance club sometimes you will have a temporary hearing loss that will recover to some extent; you will have ringing in your ears,” she said.

Although people can experience short term hearing damage, it can take years for the damage to lead to hearing loss and tinnitus. 

Tinnitus, the phantom sound

People with tinnitus hear a ringing or whistling sound that tinnitus experts call a phantom sound.

“There is something wrong that is interpreted as a sound in the neural signal,” Hébert said. “Somewhere in the auditory pathways there is some signal that is interpreted by the brain as a sound.” 

‘What is terrible is that it’s voluntary exposure to noise and high sound levels, so it’s completely controllable’ – Sylvie Hébert, president Acouphènes Québec

Hébert said there also can be psychological and emotional influences on tinnitus, but it’s not clear what the relationship is. “People are really disturbed by it and their life quality is really, really affected.”

​About 15 per cent of the population has some form of tinnitus. She estimates between 60,000 and 80,000 people in Quebec are suffering from serious forms of tinnitus, and that more and more young people are being diagnosed.

“What is terrible is that it’s voluntary exposure to noise and high sound levels, so it’s completely controllable.”

Hearing loss photo

Parents can limit hearing damage by encouraging children to keep volumes well below 85 decibels and limiting exposure. (Shutterstock / Dubova)

How loud is too loud? 

Hébert has the following suggestions for protection against hearing damage.  

  • Any noise you have to shout over in order to be heard is too loud
  • Keep your volume to one third of the maximum level on your listening device
  • Once you go over one half of the maximum volume you need to shorten the exposure
  • At 85 decibels or higher people should limit exposure to eight hours
  • Decibels rise logarithmically, so increasing the decibels by only three means you have to cut your exposure in half — at 88 decibels your exposure should be four hours; at 91 it should be two hours
  • If holding your ear buds at arms length you can still hear music, it’s probably too loud
  • Noise-cancelling headphones that cover the ear may be safer since they allow for more clarity at lower decibel levels
  • Quality of ear buds and headphones vary
  • Some dance clubs are so loud, people shouldn’t expose their ears for more than a minute

Loud headphones putting young people at risk for hearing damage

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