5 min read


Bottom Line — Our generation will have a record number of those who will be hard of hearing. It’ll be our own fault. Use ear plugs!

Our generation will have record numbers of those who will be hard of hearing. It’ll be our own fault. When you’re past 60 years old and retired, it’ll be tiresome to keep saying:

Huh? What? Repeat that again…

We don’t think about our ears often enough, but we naively don’t realize when we’re killing our sense of hearing with over exposure to loud noise at venues.

Vigilance is on you

DJs that play in bars and nightclubs almost always play music at levels that will damage your eyes. Have you walked out of a night club or a concert and noticed your ears ringing? That ringing sound is ear damage.

Rock concerts are especially bad about this and play at volumes as high as 130 dB (we’ll talk about that later). Concerts played indoors are worse for hearing than outdoor ones because the sound waves outdoors dissipate while the sound waves indoors reflect within the structure of the building.

You’re asking why the hell would musicians play so loud to inadvertently damage our ears? Here’s what I think:

  1. It might be because that’s the volume the venue wants music to be played at. There’s a correlation between loud music in bars and an increase in alcohol consumption. A smart musician will have musician’s earplugs protecting his ears while he’s performing.
  2. The musician might be hard of hearing from years of sound abuse and what is loud to a person with normal hearing appears to be the normal volume to the musician.

Ear Damage

10 million people in the US suffer from hearing loss due to damage from excessive noise (2016). You have these microscopic hairs in your ears called cochlea. They vibrate depending on what frequency of noise you hear and send that vibration to your brain for processing. They are damaged either by quick exposure to very loud noise or a longer exposure to medium-loud noise. When enough of these hairs are damaged, you experience hearing loss. Even worse, a condition called tinnitus can occur. Tinnitus drives people nuts because they constantly hear a high pitched noise in their ears day and night.

Decibels and Exposure

The sound pressure that enters your ears is measured in decibels (dB). The perceived doubling of loudness (subjective by humans) happens every +10dB. That means 90dB is perceived as a sound that’s twice as loud as 80 dB.

Let’s look at some data taken from gcaudio.com on loudness. Exposure times were taken from OSHA.

Sound Exposure Chart
Sound Exposure Chart

We care about the exposure times. You’ll see that you can withstand 90 dB comfortably for 8 hours. With louder noises, that exposure time lowers significantly.

Looking at the chart, you’ll see that at a noise level of 115dB, you have 0.25 hours (which is 15 minutes) before ear damage begins.

Protecting ears with portable earplugs

I’ve been using Etymotic Research ER20 earplugs for several years and I carry them on my keys. They are not your typical foam ear plugs for several reasons.

  1. They lower the volume by a maximum of 20 dB, unlike the traditional foam ones such as Howard Leight MAX Lite which reduce volume by 30dB.
  2. The ER20 earplugs allow music and voice to come through with clarity unlike the muffling effect of traditional ear plugs. You just feel like volume has been turned down, but the sound comes through. This means you can wear them and still talk to your friends in a noisy night club.
  3. They are reusable. You can wipe them and reuse them for years.
  4. They are more discreet than traditional earplugs. When you put them in, the clear tip protrudes from your ear, but you can angle it down so it is not too visible. It doesn’t look ridiculous.

By the way, ER20’s are not the only earplugs out there. Any musician’s earplugs will do. I use ones and therefore I can talk about them.

How ER20’s look and the key chain attachment.
How ER20’s look and the key chain attachment.

You’ll notice that I also keep a pair of the traditional Howard Leights in the key chain attachment. Those earplugs are really soft and at $5 for 20 pairs, it’s cheap enough to buy. If I’m with a friend at a noisy concert, I can offer them ear protection.

That’s how easy it is to avoid hearing loss. Don’t be fooled by thinking you can handle extended loud sound exposure. It’s not cool to hurt yourself by choice and be forced to wear an ear hearing aid in the future. This isn’t building muscle in the gym where breaking down muscle fibers makes them come back stronger. Your future self will thank you.

What to do when a Grenade falls near you

Although a bit distant from our topic of ear plugs, this does have much to do with your ears. What would you do if someone threw a grenade and it landed 15 feet away from you and you had no cover to hide behind?

We talked about how sound pressure is measured in decibels (dB). Enough sound pressure will puncture your ear drums unless you can help equalize the pressure.

When a grenade explodes near you, the proper procedure is to jump away from the grenade and to the ground with your head away from the grenade blast and with your hands closing both ears and your mouth remaining open. Make sure your elbows are tucked into your ribs. Your feet will be facing towards the grenade.

During the explosion, shock waves travel out. Since you have oxygen in your bodily cavities, this shock wave can puncture your lungs and blow out your eardrums. You open your mouth and it acts as a big pathway to prevent this from happening by allowing the shock wave to enter and exit your body. The ears stay covered to prevent ear damage to the cochlea from the loud sound exposure. The hands are tucked in to minimize the surface area exposure to the grenade shrapnel. Shrapnel will still get you, but hopefully, it can be minimized and you might survive.

You get your teeth cleaned yearly and you go to an optometrist to check your eyes. We don’t go to an audiologist because our ears function so well throughout our lives and that’s why we don’t know how to take care of them. Be smart and protect your ears while you’re young, so that your older future self won’t lament the foolish mistakes of the past.