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Earbud Ear: Fast Track to Hearing Loss

MP3 Players and Hearing Loss

The next time you drop off the kids at school, notice how many youngsters have those ubiquitous white wires draped over their shoulders. These kids are totally plugged in and loving it. There's nothing better than listening to your favorite tunes. LOUD. Loud enough to block out the background noise that surrounds us from morning til night.

Problem is, these electronic toys are real ear busters especially when youre pumping 100 dBs down the old tune chute right into the ear. [BTW, dB stands for decibel, a measurement of a sounds loudness. The more dBs, the louder the sound.] Simple. And potentially dangerous to hearing health according to a professional who's studied the problem.

Dr. Brian J. Fligor, Sc.D., CCC-A, is the Director of Diagnostic Audiology at Children's Hospital in Boston. He's also an Instructor in Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School. And he's on a mission. A mission to protect our hearing.

Dr. Fligor and his associates have studied MP3 behaviors and determined that our listening habits are causing problems. "I'm not against MP3 players", Dr. Fligor explained during a recent interview with Healthy Hearing,"I have one myself and I love it. I use it all the time." So whats the problem?

As Dr. Fligor sees things, consumers are being given a false sense of security when they purchase so-called safe MP3 ear buds. "I'm skeptical of any product that relies solely on controlling volume without any recognition of the role length of listening time plays in hearing loss."

"The problem isn't just how loud. Its how long, too, and any product that claims to be safe for listening to MP3 players is not factoring in how long the MP3 users stay plugged in."

Safe Listening Levels?

"If you were to listen to your music for 24 hours straight, anything up to 75 dB is safe. That is the maximum for safe listening no matter how long you listen", Dr. Fligor explained. "What we've learned in our studies is that listening levels are determined by background noise. The louder the background noise, the higher the listening level of MP3 users trying to block out that background noise. So, 75 dB isn't high enough for most people in background noise."

So is there a safe way to listen to your favorite tunes MP3-wise? When asked if over-the-ear headphones were better than ear buds that fit directly into the ear canal, Dr. Fligor replied, "We tested MP3 users with varying degrees of background noise. Test subjects used ear buds and over-the-ear headphones. The results showed that listeners set volume levels at the exact same loudness whether using ear buds or headphones."

Okay, no help there.

dBs + minutes = hearing loss

Your'e no better off using headphones than ear buds. You're still sending too much noise down the ear canal. But, by limiting the amount of time you listen to your collection of thrash-metal favs at 100-110 dBs, you'll preserve your hearing (and perhaps your sanity).

According to Dr. Fligor, the so-called safe ear buds simply limit volume. These devices are constructed to keep maximum volume at 85 dB or less. However, they make no provision for the length of time the listener uses the ear buds. That creates a false sense of security, because some people will get hearing loss if they listen at 85 dB for long enough.

Unless and until MP3 designers find a way to not only limit the amount of volume delivered through ear buds, but also manage the length of time we listen, hearing loss will continue to occur among users of these high-tech gizmos.

A Couple of Very Good Recommendations from a Hearing Expert and Personal MP3 Owner

So, what does this hearing expert recommend? Dr. Fligor offered two excellent suggestions, "Limit the time you listen at high volumes. Then, give your ears a rest recovery time. If you give your ears the chance, hearing returns to normal levels. The key is to take time out and go unplugged."

"I also recommend MP3 users upgrade to earphones that block out background noise", Dr. Fligor stated. As his test results demonstrate, MP3 listening levels are determined by background noise. So, if you're riding the D train in New York, you'll turn up the volume to block out the noise of the crowded subway car. On the other hand, you'll naturally lower the volume during a quiet walk in the country.

Upgrading to headphones that reduce or block exterior, ambient sound (even really loud sounds like the D train) enables MP3 users to lower the listening volume and extend their listening time.

These devices are only going to grow in popularity. It's a must-have for most kids and that's where the damage is starting. In most cases, there are no cures for hearing loss. Once it's gone its gone. So, the only way to eliminate the problem is by taking preventative steps.

And don't be fooled into thinking that there are safe ear buds. They don't exist at least not yet. As Dr. Fligor explained, it's not just the volume; its also how long the listener is exposed to loud volume.

So give your ears a break. Give your kids ears a break. Give them recovery time. The only way to use these devices safely is to limit both volume and listening time.

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