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Do teenagers using earphones risk damaging their hearing?

Hearing and Healthcare Professionals are seeing more young people with hearing loss caused by loud music and, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) studies, nearly 50% of teenagers and young adults aged 12–35 are at risk of hearing loss from the unsafe use of their MP3 players and smartphones.

Young people need to be more aware of the risks of continuously listening to loud music, and to know that once they lose their hearing it won’t come back.

How can you prevent hearing loss from headphones?

There are simple, preventive actions they can take to enjoy their listening without putting their hearing at risk. One is to monitor the decibels, the other is to restrict the time and frequency.

Assessing a safe listening level

Safe listening depends on the volume, duration, and frequency. Sound below 80 decibels (dB) is very unlikely to cause permanent damage, but it is considered the upper limit for safe exposure over 8 hours. Unsafe levels of sound can be, for example, exposure in excess of 85 dB for eight hours or 100dB for 15 minutes.
When exposure is particularly loud, regular, or prolonged, it can lead to permanent damage of the ear’s sensory cells, resulting in irreversible hearing loss. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Essentially, the tiny hair-like structures (stereocilia) located deep inside the inner ear, fall over or break off after repeated and strong stimulation. As a result, they no longer transmit signals to the hearing nerves that carry the message to the brain.
The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL to happen. The scary thing is that for every 5 dB increase in sound level above 80 dB, our safe exposure time halves. So, 85 dB is only safe up to four hours, 90 dB for two hours, and so on. Exposure to really intense sound such as a shotgun blast at close range, or a jet plane taking off right beside you can cause permanent hearing loss instantly.
But how do you know when noise is dangerous? As a rough guide, if your ears are ringing after exposure there is a risk your hearing is being damaged. Normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawn mower is about 90 dB, and a loud rock concert is about 120 dB.

Developing safe listening practices

Teenagers and young people can better protect their hearing by keeping the volume down on their devices — the rule of thumb is 6-7 (or two thirds) on the volume dial — and by using carefully fitted noise-cancelling (if possible) earphones or headphones. Smartphone apps such as SoundMeter, SPLnFFT Noise Meter, NoiSee, or Noise Hunter can monitor safe listening levels.
Young people can also restrict the duration of their daily listening. Noise duration also plays a big role in the likelihood of hearing damage. Listening to music at a moderate or lower level won’t hurt, but you have to watch the number of hours you are exposed to it. If you want it louder then that’s acceptable if you only listen for a shorter time.
Every time someone is exposed to loud noise, their temporary threshold for sound shifts. When earbuds are taken out, ears can be less sensitive to sound and feel full. It can take several minutes or even hours to get back to equilibrium. Long-term exposure to loud noises can cause a permanent shift in sound threshold.
Heed the signs and seek assistance
Finally, WHO estimates that 360 million people worldwide have moderate to profound hearing loss and half of the cases were avoidable. Don’t delay seeking help. Encourage your teenager or young person to have regular hearing check-ups, and heed the warning signs of hearing loss:
• not hearing as well as previously
• needing to turn the TV volume up while others complain that it’s too loud
• family and friends making comments about their hearing
• complaining that people are mumbling
• having to ask people to repeat themselves
• finding it difficult to hear when more than one person speaks at a time

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