Noise, Sound and Earplugs
Words: Happy Ears
You might be damaging your hearing by exposing yourself to the sound levels at rock gigs. What can you do about it?
Taking earplugs to a concert may seem counterintuitive. You want to hear the music don't you? But last week rapper Plan B and Chris Martin from Coldplay launched a campaign to warn music fans that loud music can cause permanent hearing loss. If you go to a gig, they said, wear earplugs. But can a few hours in front of large speakers really damage your ears? And more importantly, how can you look cool if you've got earplugs in?
The most common cause of deafness is noise-induced hearing loss. Your risk is related to how loud the noise is, how close you are to it and how long you're exposed to it. A normal conversation is around 65 decibels (db); under 75db your ears are safe. But continuous exposure (eight hours a day) to noise over 85db (equivalent to a heavy lorry passing nearby) will damage your hearing permanently. A blast of noise over 110db for two minutes can hurt your ears immediately.
A rock concert can generate around 100db to 120db (as much as a chainsaw). After leaving a gig or club it's not uncommon to have pain in your ears, ringing or temporary deafness. Usually this will stop after a while but if you go to enough loud concerts, combined with listening to an MP3 player full blast (110db) the rest of the time, your ears will be damaged.
Your hearing depends in part on delicate hair cells in the inner ear that transmit the energy from sound picked up by the outer ear to the brain, through converting it to electrical impulses. Loud noises blast and irreversibly damage these cells, leading to hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus, an unpleasant condition in which you hear ringing, whooshing or high-pitched whining sounds. When tinnitus is continuous it can be extremely distressing. A sudden loud noise such as a gunshot can cause irreversible damage immediately. Repeated exposure to loud noise causes a more gradual hearing loss, with voices sounding muffled and distorted.
If you're at a concert or any place where you can't hear someone talk to you from two metres away or your ears start hurting, then your hair cells are being damaged. You should stand away from speakers, take 10 minutes out from the music every hour and ideally wear earplugs. If you get the right ones (not foam, which will only block out some of the frequencies) they will evenly reduce the level of sound. The best sort, as used by musicians, filter sound instead of blocking it. Action on Hearing Loss, the charity behind this campaign, has a good guide on its website about the different types available, some of which are very discreet. Never improvise by using cotton buds as they can damage your ears.