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November 22, 2022

Nearly half of young people listen to music too loudly; here's how to safely use headphones

Everyday conversations happen at 70 decibels. To prevent hearing loss, the volume shouldn't be much higher, audiologists say

Prevention Hearing Loss
Safe headphone volume Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay

To prevent hearing loss, keep the volume level no higher than 60% of maximum capacity when using a phone or another listening device, audiologists advise.

As many as 1.35 billion young people worldwide are at higher risk of hearing loss because of how loudly they listen to music, according to a report from the World Health Organization. 

Audiologists say that noise levels should be no more than 85 decibels for adults and 75 decibels for children. Normal conversation occurs at or below 70 decibels. 

However, people ages 12-35 commonly listen to music and other content at 105 decibels when using MP3 players and smartphones, a new WHO report shows. And when they attend concerts, the average noise level ranges from 104 to 112 decibels. 

This practice endangers their hearing, the report says. Noise-induced hearing loss can compound over time, leading to irreversible hearing loss. It also can increase a person's risk for age-related hearing loss, the researchers explained.

Yet, this practice is widespread. About 48% of young people, including 24% of teenagers, engage in unsafe listening practices by turning up the volume on their devices or attending loud events at entertainment venues.

The WHO researchers arrived at those figures by analyzing 33 studies from 2000 to 2021. None of those studies was able to determine whether hearing loss was permanent or temporary. 

Last year, a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 17% of people ages 12-19 have some degree of noise-induced hearing loss; many don't realize that it is permanent. Many experts say people are losing their hearing at much younger ages than they did just 30 years ago.

One of the early signs of hearing loss is having trouble understanding a conversation when there is a lot of background noise. Another sign is tinnitus, a ringing in the ears.

The WHO estimates that more than 430 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss. Each person's risk is dependent on the volume, length and frequency of the loud noises they are exposed to. 

Among children, hearing loss can lead to poorer academic performance and cause motivation and concentration problems. Among adults, hearing loss is linked to poorer mental health, depression, cognitive impairment and even heart problems, according to the CDC.

How loud is too loud? 

The good news is that hearing loss from loud noise is preventable. 

"A rough rule of thumb is, if you're using ear buds, take them out and hold them away at arm's length," Sam Couth, an ear health researcher at the University of Manchester, told The Washington Post. "And if you can still hear the music clearly at arm's length, it's too loud."

Here are some other tips to reduce the risk for noise-induced hearing loss. They are curated from the CDC, Brentwood Hearing Center and Connect Hearing:

• Use ear protection, such as the high-fidelity ear plugs used by musicians, in loud environments. Move away from loud noises when possible.
• When using a listening device, limit the volume to 60% of the maximum capacity and use it for no more than 60 minutes at a time.  Some cellphones will alert you when the noise is too loud.
• Turn down the volume on your radio and television to a level where you don't have to raise your voice to be heard over it.
• Take regular breaks from noise throughout the day. Research shows that for every two hours of exposure to noises above 100 decibels, your ears need 16 hours to recover.

If you are concerned about your hearing, schedule a hearing test with your doctor.

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