If you’ve spent any time at a concert sitting just a little too close to the speakers, you probably know what it feels like to have your hearing damaged. Walk out of the concert and the world will sound like it’s underwater, with an unmistakable ringing that can last for hours.
Most people know repeated exposure to trauma like this—or even a one-time event like a gunshot near your eardrum—can lead to permanent hearing loss. But you may not be aware that typical everyday sounds, such as a smartphone with stock earbuds at max volume, can cause damage as well.
It’s called noise-induced hearing loss, and it’s much more prevalent than you think. It’s particularly dangerous among children, with devastating effects that can last for the rest of your lfe.
Here’s everything you need to know about noise-induced hearing loss, its effects, and how you can prevent it with a few simple steps.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
According to the CDC, noise-induced hearing loss is hearing loss caused by damage to the fibers in your inner ear that are responsible for your hearing. This kind of damage can be caused by a single loud blast or by repeated exposure to excessively loud sounds.
Though some studies suggest some kinds of hearing loss (particularly the kind caused by blasts of sound) may be reversible in some cases, the most prevalent view is that most forms of noise-induced hearing loss is not treatable by medical intervention. The best treatment in this case is prevention.
How does noise-induced hearing loss happen?
Noise-induced hearing loss isn’t like a broken arm; it often happens gradually without you noticing it, making it difficult to diagnose.
Though the exact threshold where damage occurs is a source of debate, the current guidelines for safe listening are to limit exposure to an average “dose” of 85dB(a) for 8 hours per day. For context, 85dB(a) is approximately equivalent to being near a garbage disposal or blender while it's running.
According to our tests, however, even cheap earbuds can average closer to 105dB(a). Though an 8-hour dose of 85dB(a) is likely fine, the time is cut in half for every 3dB(a) you go up. So 88dB(a) is only safe for four hours, 91dB(a) for two, 94 for just one. Those 105dB(a) earbuds? They could potentially cause damage in minutes.
What are the effects?
They’re scarier than you think. Not being able to hear everyday things is the most obvious, but there are knock-on effects from that. There are studies that show that hearing loss in adults can contribute to social isolation, reduced cognitive function, depression, a reduced ability to recover from stress, and even early onset dementia.
In children, the effects can be even more devastating. Hearing loss can have profound effects on a child’s academic performance and social development. Hearing loss is also cumulative over your lifetime, so it may only get worse as they age into adulthood.
Is noise-induced hearing loss treatable or curable?
Not that we know of. Though there are ways to reduce the impacts of hearing loss (such as hearing aids), there’s no known way to recover your natural hearing ability medically or surgically.
How can I prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
The best way to prevent noise-induced hearing loss is to avoid exposure to the kind of sound levels that will damage your hearing.
This means using hearing protection whenever necessary, especially if you’ll be potentially exposed to extremely loud sounds—or even moderately loud sounds for a long period of time. Workers in industries that involve firearms or heavy machinery are particularly at risk, and are much more likely to be affected by noise-induced hearing loss in their lifetime.
That said, leisure-related activities can also contribute to hearing loss. As our lab tests have shown, a simple pair of earbuds and an iPhone at full volume can reach over 105dB(a) easily. Listening at this loud of a volume can have a damaging effect over a long period of time, and you should avoid that whenever possible.
Children are particularly at risk here, and for them we recommend using volume-limiting headphones. Our roundup of the best headphones for kids includes recommendations for our favorite kids headphones, all of which are volume-limited.
How do volume-limited headphones work?
For any pair of wired headphones, the maximum volume is determined by what they’re plugged into. Earbuds that top out at 100dB with your phone might hit 110dB with an amplifier.
Volume-limited headphones work by reducing this incoming power, but there’s no hard cap. Plug a “safe” pair into an amp and it will likely be unsafe for a child to use.
Wireless kids’ headphones are a bit more of a pain to use, but they only rely on their internal power (the battery). Because of this, you can be assured the max volume is the loudest your child will be exposed to—as long as you use them wirelessly.