September 19, 2017

Sound advice: Kids and ear health

Here's a startling statistic: Around 15 percent of kids have some sort of noise-induced hearing loss. For many, this hearing loss is due to listening to music on their personal devices.

When traveling with their families, many kids are “plugged in” to electronic devices, putting them at a higher risk of potential noise-induced hearing loss. Abigail McMahon, AuD, chief of Audiology at Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, shares general guidelines for noise exposure and tips on how to keep yourself and the kids in your life safe from hearing loss.

Tip No. 1: Pay attention to duration of the noise exposure.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that we should simply pay attention to how loud the sound is,” said Dr. McMahon. “But it is just as important to also be conscious of how long you're exposed to the sound. So, both volume and duration are crucial factors to take into account.”

According to Dr. McMahon, listening to sound at 85 decibels for eight hours a day is safe. For reference, traffic noise in a busy city is around 85 decibels. Anything over 85 decibels can be considered dangerous, depending upon how long you are exposed to the sound. Dr. McMahon recommends downloading a free noise dosimeter, or sound level meter, on your mobile device to check out your noise listening levels, wherever you are.

Tip No. 2: Limit the noise output on your devices.

"As a general guideline, listening to sound at 60 percent of the output volume on a given device is safe," said Dr. McMahon. She recommends taking advantage of the built-in volume-limiting feature that comes standard on many phones and music players. You can also purchase noise-limiting headphones and earbuds.

Another rule of thumb is you should be able to have a conversation with someone near you without having to turn off your sound or shout.

Tip No. 3: Get your children’s (and your) hearing checked regularly.

Our ears and brains are notably resilient when compensating for ear damage, so the effects of loud and continuous noise do take a little while to present, Dr. McMahon says. At that point, the damage is usually irreversible. It’s a cumulative effect, too. Once your ears are damaged, they are susceptible to further damage.

Unsafe listening habits can lead to inner ear damage when sound bends tiny hair cells in the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. This is known as a threshold shift and symptoms include ringing, known as tinnitus, in your ears and muffled sounds. After attending a concert, you may experience a temporary threshold shift, but your ears recover after a couple of days. With a permanent threshold shift, those warning signs linger after consistent exposure to loud noises; the condition is commonly referred to as noise-induced hearing loss.

Particularly for young children, inner ear damage can interfere with speech and language development, and communication abilities. Dr. McMahon recommends that children regularly get hearing tested, especially if they have symptoms, such as tinnitus, or trouble understanding speech.

Tip No. 4: Make ear health part of a larger conversation about health.

Proactively talking to your kids about what is involved with safe listening levels and safe exposure times is a great place to start.

"Talk to them about giving their ears a rest, just as they would take breaks from being out in the sun while at the beach," Dr. McMahon advises. Practicing safe listening habits is something we do to protect our bodies every day.

“Discuss the value of quiet,” Dr. McMahon added with a chuckle, and hope it doesn't go in one ear and out the other.


Activities that can cause noise-induced hearing loss:

  • playing an instrument
  • playing in a band
  • attending recreational concerts
  • gaming
  • riding in the car with the windows down
  • participating in woodshop activities
  • riding on a motorcycle
  • auto racing

Remember: Listening to sound at 85 decibels for 8 hours a day is safe. If listening to sound over 85 decibels, decrease the length of exposure.