The official start of summer is just around the corner and that means beach vacations, family barbecues and tons of live music.
If you are planning to attend any concerts or visit any live music venue this summer, it is important to remember that loud noise levels can damage your hearing even when it is the sweet sounds of your favorite band.
Tinnitus is the technical term for a constant loud ringing in the ears or dull sensation in the head. About 50 million Americans experience it, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
It is a condition that occurs naturally as we grow older, but it can also occur because of an ear injury or an underlying health problem. Loud noise exposure is also another common cause.
Scientists still don’t understand the underlying mechanisms behind tinnitus, but it is believed that the root cause is the brain’s reaction to changes in hearing.
Dr. Rebecca Blaha, assistant professor at Salus University’s Osborne College of Audiology, explained when your hearing is damaged, the brain tries to rebalance and therefore generates additional activity, resulting in an added noise (ringing, buzzing, roaring, etc.) in the ears. When hearing levels are normal, the neural activity is balanced and consistent, and the excess noise is not present.
So how do you know if you are in danger of damaging your hearing while out listening to music this summer?
Dr. Blaha said it depends on both the sound dosage and how long you are exposed to it. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, sound levels 85 decibels or higher could damage your hearing.
“At 85 decibels, you may only be at risk of damage after 8 hours of exposure, but as the sound dosage increases, the length of safe exposure is cut in half,” she said.
Basically, the louder the sound, the shorter amount of time it takes for damage to accrue. Loud noises above 120 decibels can cause immediate damage to your ears if you are not wearing protective gear, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And if you are repeatedly subjecting your ears to loud sounds, your risk for hearing loss is even higher because you aren’t giving your ears time to recover.
An easy way to do a sound check wherever you are is to download a decibel meter app to your smartphone. It can quickly measure the noise levels wherever you are.
If you are at a concert and the sound level is at a concerning decibel level, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to leave right away, Dr. Blaha said.
You can still stay and jam out with no worries if you are wearing protective gear.
Musician earplugs like those made by Westone have a sound attenuating filter that can turn down the sound and cushion your ears. There are ready-to-wear brands available, or you can get a pair custom made. There is also an earmuff style for kids that provide the same amount of sound level reduction.
When to see a doctor
The good news is that even if you were to come out of a concert with ringing ears, it is usually a temporary impairment and in 16 hours your ears will have recovered. If you are in loud environments a lot though, your hearing will recover less and less.
“If you develop tinnitus and it doesn’t go away, and it lasts more than 6 months, it is most likely permanent,” Dr. Blaha said.
When this happens, the focus becomes managing the condition. She said they usually start with amplification to return sound to the ear. For some people this can relieve the tinnitus over time because the brain has a chance to recalibrate.
Other management strategies include doing sound therapy to distract from tinnitus.
“We look at areas of life most affected like enjoying quiet activities or sleeping and use pleasant or calming sounds to distract from the ringing sounds so you can focus more effectively on things you want or need to do,” she said.
“If tinnitus does develop, many patients can effectively live with it. A small percentage, however, find it debilitating.”
If you hear a ringing in your ears, it is important to have your hearing evaluated.
Learn about tinnitus at Salus University.
Learn more about sound therapy for tinnitus.