The Ear of Living Dangerously

By Anna Sachse

Posted July 16, 2009 in Mind Body Spirit

Our ears are constantly assaulted by noise—blaring bedlam from the television and radio, lawnmowers, household appliances, traffic, people who think it’s okay to scream-talk into their cell phones in enclosed public spaces like airplanes, etc. 


A fair amount of this din is probably no big whoop, but trouble arises when you subject your ears to sounds at or above 85 decibels. A decibel is a unit that measures the intensity of sound on a scale from zero to 140. An increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more intense—to human ears, it sounds twice as loud. To put loud into perspective, normal conversation is at about 60 decibels. If you turn your stereo system up to full blast, it’s probably about 105 decibels. Weighing in at 110 decibels is both standing next to a chainsaw and attending a rock concert. Both activities are a frightening 50 times louder than a conversation, but which one do you think you are more likely to do for a prolonged period of time?


According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), when we are exposed to harmful noise—sounds that are too loud or loud sounds that last a long time—sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, causing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). These sensitive structures, called hair cells, are small sensory cells that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, our hair cells cannot grow back. 


Did you hear me, all you metal heads and punk rockers? Or, really, anyone (including Britney, Miley and Jonas Brothers fans) who likes to turn it up to 11. Your hair cells cannot grow back. Regular exposure to 110 decibel noise of more than one minute risks permanent hearing loss. You could permanently lose much or even all of your hearing. 


NIHL is sometimes also accompanied by tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears or head—which may subside over time, but could continue constantly or occasionally throughout your life.


But enough with the scare tactics. The truth is, you really can have your GWAR and listen to it too. You just need to follow these three simple, practical steps to prevent hearing loss:


1. Don’t get too close to loud music. This one is easy if you’re at home or in your car—simply turn the music down to a reasonable level. But if you’re at a concert or a night club, try to position yourself as far away as possible from the amps.


2. Don’t listen to loud music for too long. Again, if you’re in your own personal space, turn the mutherfucker down already. But if you’re going to rock steady at Angels Sports Bar or get sweaty at the Vibe at Morongo, try to take breaks away from the noise after every couple of songs. 


3. Don’t listen to music that is too loud. Make earplugs a requisite part of your concert and/or club attire—it is not uncool to wear them, and you can still hear the music. In fact, the majority of musicians and DJs wear them while they are performing. There are different types of earplugs available, from the affordable, disposable foam or silicone variety (available at pharmacies and online), to pricier custom versions, featuring special filters and damping materials, favored by musicians and DJs (check out Sound heard with these earplugs has the same quality as the original, only quieter. You’ll feel like Greg Graffin (of Bad Religion) is singing to just you.


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