Loud music at a concert, nightclub or festival can leave party-goers’ ears ringing. Now, research published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery suggests wearing earplugs to events in order to reduce or prevent temporary hearing loss and tinnitus.

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Events with loud music can expose party-goers to dangerous levels of noise.

Cases of acquired hearing loss are on the rise, with rates among adolescents up by 31% since 1988, according to the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The trend may be related to exposure to recreational noise through attending concerts, festivals, nightclubs and other music venues.

Loud music at such events can expose individuals to sound pressure levels of 100-110 decibels (dBA) for several hours, a known cause of hearing loss. Hearing loss due to this type of exposure is normally temporary.

Short-term exposure to extremely loud noise, or levels above 140 dBA, can cause acoustic trauma, with direct damage potentially leading to permanent hearing loss.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the maximum safe exposure time for listening to noise at 85 dBA is 8 hours.

For 100 dBA, guidelines recommend a maximum of 15 minutes, and for 106 dBA, just 3.75 minutes. For every 3 dBAs over 85 dBA, exposure time before possible damage can occur is halved.

For comparison, Dangerous Decibels – a public health campaign designed to reduce hearing loss – puts the sound of a whisper around 20 dBA, busy city traffic at 85 dBA and a rock concert at 115 dBA.

Dr. Wilko Grolman, PhD, of the University Medical Center at Utrecht in the Netherlands, and colleagues have been looking at whether earplugs can help prevent temporary hearing loss after listening to loud music.

Fast facts about hearing loss
  • Children may receive more noise at school than workers spending 8 hours at a factory
  • Some 10 million Americans have permanent hearing loss from noise or trauma
  • 12.5% of 6-19-year-olds in the US have high hearing thresholds due to noise exposure.

Learn more about hearing loss

The researchers carried out a random controlled trial (RCT) involving 51 volunteers, with an average age of 27 years. Participants, whom they recruited through social media, attended an outdoor music festival in Amsterdam.

The time-averaged sound pressure level was 100 dBA, and the concert lasted for 4.5 hours.

The team randomly assigned the participants to two groups. In one were 25 people who wore earplugs. The other 26 did not.

They then used an audiogram to measure any level of hearing loss, or temporary threshold shift (TTS).

Results showed that the proportion of participants with temporary hearing loss was 8% in the earplug group, and 42% among those without earplugs. Moreover, only 12% of those with earplugs experienced tinnitus, compared with 40% in the unprotected group.

Limitations of the study include not knowing the exact level of noise exposure for each participant, and the possibility that hearing recovered before undergoing the test.

However, the authors point out that considering these points would most likely favor the use of earplugs.

The researchers believe that if people were aware of the benefits of earplugs, they would be more likely to use them to protect their hearing.

They note that although this type of hearing loss is growing in prevalence worldwide, there is a lack of evidence and knowledge regarding the effects.

The authors say:

This RCT adds evidence that earplugs are effective in preventing temporary hearing loss during high recreational music levels. Therefore, the use of earplugs should be actively promoted and encouraged to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.”

You can test your awareness of safe sound levels using Dangerous Decibels’ interactive quiz.

Medical News Today has previously published an article suggesting ways to minimize recreational hearing loss.