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Protecting Your Ears From Loud Summertime Sounds

By Michael Lasalandra, BIDMC Correspondent
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Summertime can be particularly difficult on the ears, since outdoor activities can be associated with increased exposure to loud noises. We asked Lydia T. Colón, Au.D., CCC-A, a senior audiologist in the Division of Audiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, about the dangers posed by exposure to loud noises, particularly in the summertime, and what can be done to protect your ears.

(Photo/iStockphoto)

(Photo/iStockphoto)

Q: Why is summer a particularly dangerous time for exposure to loud noises that can potentially harm your hearing?

A: One of the main reasons is that people are out and about. They are mowing their lawns, using hedge trimmers or leaf blowers and the sounds generated by those types of equipment are loud enough to potentially damage your hearing.

Q: Besides yard work, what other summer activities are associated with potential damage to the hearing?

A: One obvious answer is fireworks. Fourth of July fireworks displays can get dangerously loud; and blowing off your own fireworks at home can be even more harmful. In addition, summer is associated with outdoor concerts and rock concerts, in particular, can be very loud and potentially harmful to the ears. A growing issue is also the use of personal music playing devices such as iPhones or iPods that use headphones or earbuds. Many people turn them up while running or bicycling to drown out the sound of traffic. In turning them up to drown out the traffic noise, they are pushing the sound level to a dangerous level. These devices are a particular problem in Boston year-round as people do this while riding the T to drown out the train noise.

Q: How loud is too loud?

A: The federal government has set a level of 85 decibels as safe. If the noise is less than 85 decibels, it is safe for your ears. Over 85 decibels and permanent damage can set in.

Q: How would someone know if what they are listening to is under or over 85 decibels?

A: If someone has to shout at you for you to be able to understand what they are saying while he or she is an arm’s length away, the surrounding noise is too loud and most likely over 85 decibels. A couple of examples of sounds that are over 85 decibels would be a lawn mower, which is 90 decibels. An iPod at maximum volume is 100 decibels. And a rock concert can reach 115 decibels. Exploding fireworks can top 130 decibels.

Q: Does the amount of time you are exposed to loud noises make a difference?

A: Yes. If you are listening to something that is more than 100 decibels for more than two hours, you risk permanent damage. A rock concert at 115 decibels can cause permanent damage after 15 minutes. Limiting your time exposure to loud noise is recommended.

Q: Is there anything that can be done to protect the ears and still participate in loud summer activities?

A: We recommend wearing earplugs. You can buy inexpensive ones at a drug store, but make sure to read the directions to make sure you are inserting them correctly. When listening to your iPod, do not turn the volume up to maximum level under any circumstances. And if you are going to attend a lot of loud rock concerts, you may want to get musician’s earplugs for which you must be fitted. Some people prefer these as they attenuate the sound evenly, so not to distort the music.

Q: How much do earplugs help?

A: If inserted correctly, they can reduce the noise level by as much as 29 decibels.

Q: How would I know if I have received permanent hearing damage from exposure to loud noises?

A: If you went to a loud concert or fireworks display, for example, and notice a ringing in your ears, called tinnitus, you want to have it checked out, particularly if it lasts more than 48 hours. If it does last that long, you may have caused permanent hearing damage.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2013

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