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Noise Exposure in Young Children and Teens

A report from the World Health Organization states that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers from an eight-hour work day at a factory.

Studies have also shown that for 12.5 percent of 6-19 year olds and 16.8 percent of 12-19 year olds in the United States, their hearing thresholds have been negatively impacted by noise exposure. Parents often ask us how this happens and what can be done to prevent it. Let’s first look at how this happens.

Loud sounds can be very damaging to a person’s hearing. Both the level of noise and the length of time you listen to it can put you or your child at risk for noise-induced hearing changes. Sound levels are measured in decibels (dB); the higher the decibel number, the louder the sound/noise. Research has shown that sounds louder than 85 dB can cause permanent hearing changes. Most of the hearing changes caused by exposure to loud sounds can happen very slowly and take years to be detected by the person who has it (or the person’s family and friends)

Young children: One of the most common ways young children are exposed to excessive noise is via noisy toys. Many toys are designed to be played at a distance from the body, but a young child will bring the toy close to their face and ears. By bringing the toy closer to their ears, the resulting sound is louder and therefore more damaging. Some toys can reach 100dB (as loud as a snowmobile) or more if placed close to the ear.

Tweens and Teens: Research has shown that there has been an increase in atypical hearing in adolescents during the past three decades. What is even more frightening is that hearing changes may go undetected for many years after chronic exposure to high levels of noise. This means that the hearing changes caused by the noise teenagers are exposing themselves to today might not surface for many year.

Potential sources of loud noise include playing a musical instrument, attending concerts, and using personal headphones to listen to music or games, as well as lawn mowing, hunting, or target shooting. Teenagers should be advised to limit the duration and intensity of sound exposure or noisy activities, such as concert-going or playing in a band, and to use hearing protection whenever engaged in these activities.

How can I tell if I’m listening to dangerous noise levels?

You are listening to dangerously loud sounds/noise if:

  • You must raise your voice to be heard even when you’re 2-3 feet from the person.
  • You can’t hear or understand someone 3 feet away from you.
  • You need to take your ear buds/headphones off in order to hear what is being said to you (unless they are noise-canceling headphones).
  • You are listening to music or a game at more than 50 percent (half) of the maximum volume.
  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
  • You have pain or ringing in your ears (“tinnitus”) after exposure to noise.

What can I do?

  • The best option is to avoid the loud sounds or noise whenever possible.
  • If that is not possible, use hearing protection like earplugs and/or earmuffs. Cotton will not protect your hearing.
  • If you don’t have any hearing protection available, try to limit the amount of time you or your child is exposed to the loud sound.
  • Don’t use headphones/earphones for more than two hours a day. Headphones (over-the-ear) are preferred over in-the-ear earphones (e.g. airpods) as they are farther from the eardrum. Noise-canceling earphones are preferred over those that are not. Learn more about headphone use.
  • When purchasing toys for infants, look for ones with volume control or an off/on button.
  • Limit the amount of time that children are exposed to sound or remove the batteries from young children’s toys. Another option is to cover the loudspeaker with tape to lower the volume.
  • Check out and click on “News,” then “Past News Releases,” to see a list of the noisy toys to avoid.
  • Educate your child about hearing loss. (See the websites below, which have activities for young children and tweens, as well as other fun and useful information about noise exposure and hearing loss.)
  • Lead by example! YOU can also lose your hearing with noise exposure, so use hearing protection when needed and listen to music, the T.V., and other sounds at a softer level.
  • Keep personal-listening devices set to no more than half volume. Don’t be afraid to ask others to turn down the sounds from speakers.
  • Some movie theaters, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers are very noisy. Speak to managers and those in charge about the loud noise and the potential damages to hearing. Ask to have the noise lowered.
  • Look for noise ratings on appliances, sporting equipment, power tools, and hair dryers. Purchase quieter products.

Remember, noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless, but it is PERMANENT. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do not repair.

Headphone Use Guidelines:

More than 10% of kids in the U.S. (ages 6 to 19) and almost 20% of adults under 70 have permanent damage to their hearing from noise. Half of the population between the ages of 12 and 35 is at risk of hearing loss because of exposure to loud sounds through headphones and earbud use.

Headphones can be set as high as 94-110 dBA which can cause damage in less than two minutes at the loudest setting. Early signs of hearing loss may include ringing in the ears, difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, and noise sensitivity. When hearing loss does eventually develop it is permanent.

Volume limits on headphones are necessary to keep hearing healthy. Most devices allow a maximum setting on the volume by using parental control. Aim for about 50 percent volume on your device, which means a setting of no more than 70 dBA. To help understand these numbers, here are the averages of some familiar sounds:

Normal talking: 50-60 dBA and 60-70 dBA with background noise or shouting

Movie theater: 74-104 dBA

Motorcycles and dirt bikes: 80-110 dBA

Music through headphones at maximum volume, sporting events and concerts: 94-110 dBA

Sirens: 110-129 dBA

Fireworks show: 140-160 dBA

Here are some headphone use tips:

  • Take listening breaks. The damage from loud noise adds up over time. Even a break every hour will give the hair cells in the inner ear a rest. One idea: Take the headphones off if you go to the kitchen or bathroom. 
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones, rather than earbuds. This helps reduce background noise so you are less tempted to turn up the volume to block out other sounds. 
  • Remember DO NOT to turn up the volume in loud places. If you are often using headphones in noisy places a noise-cancelling model is a must.
  • Don’t use headphones for sleeping overnight.
  • Test your child’s hearing at least every three years. Also ask your child to report any symptoms such as ringing, muffling, fluttering, thumping, sensitivity, distortion or pain even if they don’t last. Temporary symptoms mean they might return and become permanent.