I’m a little deaf in my left ear. It hasn’t always been that way, but in the last few years, I’ve noticed that if someone is trying to talk into it in a crowded room, I have to offer them my right ear instead.
This is no coincidence. I’ve loved loud music since I was a teenager—in the car, in my earbuds, in SoulCycle—and according to Alison Grimes, AuD, Director of the Audiology Clinic for UCLA Health, exposure to high-intensity noise permanently destroys your ability to hear. Period. “Cells in the inner ear are physically damaged and do not regenerate,” she says.
Filed under “not fair”: Some people do have “tougher” ears than others, says Dr. Grimes, which means they won’t experience hearing loss with the same exposure as others; however, she tells me there’s no way to predict in advance which category you’re in, which means you won’t know you have delicate ears until it’s too late.
“If, after taking out your earbuds or earphones, your ears feel ‘stuffy,’ ‘cottony,’ or sounds sound dimmed or muffled, then it was too loud and the damage is done.” —Alison Grimes, AuD
These individual variances are the reason it’s impossible for Dr. Grimes to tell me exactly how loud is too loud, or what volume level is safe for your earbuds and beyond. There are regulations in place for occupational noise exposure, but she says these are based on averages—and again, not everyone has an “average” threshold. So instead of clinging to a golden rule, Dr. Grimes offers a simple trick for discerning whether or not you’re rocking out a little too hard—with a significant caveat. “If, after taking out your earbuds or earphones, your ears feel ‘stuffy,’ ‘cottony,’ or sounds sound dimmed or muffled, then it was too loud and the damage is done,” she says. Err, wait—the damage is done? As in, it’s too late at that point? Yep, according to Dr. Grimes. “Not a great way to determine how loud is too loud,” she adds.
So, if you can’t effectively regulate the volume of sound to minimize damage, what should you do instead? “The simple answer is avoid noise,” says Dr. Grimes. More specifically, she prescribes turning down the sound, moving away from its source, wearing ear plugs when appropriate (e.g. concerts and even loud sporting events like basketball games—golf is probably fine), and giving your ears a break from listening to your Spotify playlist for a few minutes every hour.
To that end, it’s important to note as well that volume level isn’t the only factor at play. Exposure boils down to the combination of intensity and duration of the noise, says Dr. Grimes. “The ear can tolerate a loud sound for a shorter period of time, or a less-loud sound for a longer period of time,” she explains. So even if your music isn’t blasting, if you’re listening to it at a moderate level for six hours a day at work, you’re likely overdoing it—hence her suggestion to give your ears the occasional break.
You may be feeling a bit like, “Okay, mom *eye roll, eye roll*…I get it”—but noise-induced hearing loss is kinda a big deal in that it’s irreversible. To date, the only viable “treatment” is hearing aids. And while Dr. Grimes tells me some research work is being done on drugs called otoprotectants—which are currently being used to reduce the hearing loss experienced by chemotherapy patients—studies on their ability to treat noise-related hearing loss are only in the early trial stages.
Plus, noise exposure can cause tinnitus, an uncomfortable or even debilitating condition wherein you experience a ringing, buzzing, hissing, swooshing, or clicking in the ears when no external noise is present. (If you’ve seen Baby Driver, you know what I’m talking about.) Tinnitus can be acute or chronic, and there’s no cure.
If you start paying attention to your exposure now, those ubiquitous-in-the-elderly hearing aids aren’t a foregone conclusion.
Dr. Grimes reiterates, however, that such noise-induced hearing damage is preventable. If you start paying attention to your exposure now, those ubiquitous-in-the-elderly hearing aids aren’t a foregone conclusion. “There’s a strong theory that ‘age-related’ hearing loss [is primarily due to] cumulative noise exposure over your lifetime,” she tells me.
When I mention that I haven’t been to an ear doctor in decades, Dr. Grimes tells me she doesn’t generally recommend regular visits until the age of 50, at which point you should make appointments every two to three years. Unless, that is, you have hearing loss (gulp!). “Audiologic evaluation is quick, cheap, and painless, and if a person feels that they might have hearing loss, or has a family history of progressive hearing loss, or a personal history of noise exposure, do it younger,” she advises.
As with most things, it seems, mom was right: “Turn down your music or you’re gonna go deaf!” is solid advice. And while it may be too late for my left ear, I’m hopeful I can still save the right one—so, if you call out my name in spin class and I don’t respond, it’s because I’m planning to plug up from here on out.
Strange but true: Hearing loss has also been linked to folate deficiency. So, take your vitamins, invest in some ear plugs, and rock these it-girl earrings, stat.
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