UW News

February 3, 2011

Earplug advice

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

UW occupational hygienist and noise researcher Rick Neitzel said he sports musicians earplugs when he goes to concerts and amplified music performances. “The earplugs reduce the sound enough to where its much more comfortable to me, but they dont change the experience or the quality of the music at all,” he said. Musicians earplugs can run from $10 to $50 a pair.

Musicians earplugs reduce noise equally across the whole spectrum of sounds that we hear.  “If I wore the earplugs used at a construction site to a concert, they would block out a lot of high frequency noise, which would make the music sound distorted and unnatural,” Neitzel said. Earplugs used in workplaces, as well as those sold in drug stores, can block a lot of sound, but theyre not really designed for communication or music enjoyment.

Current research related to hearing loss shows that every time youre exposed to a high level of noise, you may damage hearing temporarily.  “Maybe every time it happens, it doesnt come back 100 percent the next day,” he said. “If you are exposed to high levels of noise occasionally, it doesnt amount to much.  However, if youre regularly exposed, a tiny bit of permanent hearing loss each time adds up to a substantial hearing loss in the long-term.”

What events or activities could potentially expose you to a high level of noise? Neitzel said that movies, concerts, car races and hunting can put people at risk for hearing loss over time.  “With a little bit of protection, you can enjoy these activities more and not put your health at risk,” he said. “Another ‘cure is getting over the desire to be in the front row right next to the speakers.   Even moving a short distance away can really drop your exposure down.”

Listen to a MP3 player? Neitzel said to be cautious about hearing loss with the uber-present devices, too. “There is some evidence in the literature that people who listen for many hours a day could be putting themselves at risk for hearing loss,” he said. “I certainly wouldnt discourage anyone from enjoying music from a MP3 player, but they should either turn it down or not listen to it as long.”

Neitzel said the new listening devices demonstrate a key distinction of hearing loss debates now versus 30 years ago.  “Remember all the press and hype about how our young people were going to be deaf after listening to the Sony Walkman?” he said. “Part of the reason why that didnt come true was that you could only listen for a few hours a day, and you had to constantly flip the tape and change the batteries.  Now, with modern technology, its possible to listen to a MP3 player for 12 straight hours without re-charging.  The amount of time people spend listening to these devices has increased quite a bit.”