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MP3 Players: Are They Damaging Your Hearing Health?

One out of three teens owns an iPod or some other MP3 music storage and playback device. Theyre the ones you see wearing ear buds - those little speakers that produce big sound when placed in the ear canal. Theyre also the ones doing damage to their entire hearing systems listening to the latest downloads. And adults arent immune. Even if youre listening to Glenn Millers Greatest Hits at loud volume, youre doing damage damage that cant be undone.

According to Dr. Craig Kasper, Director of Audiology at the New York Otolaryngology Group, iPodsand all MP3 playerscan damage hearing if theyre used carelessly. And they usually are. Kids like their music loud and MP3 players makes that easy for them.

The factors that affect your hearing health include:

  • Volume level (most kids like it somewhere near the threshold of pain)
  • Type of headphone (ear buds versus on- or over-the-ear headphones)
  • Length of time used (ever meet a teen who didnt want to listen for hours?)

Just think back to your teen years. Rock n roll is supposed to be loud. Really loud!

Volume level

Expose yourself to sounds above 90 decibels for extended periods of time and you will develop hearing loss, says Dr. Brian Fligor, Director of Diagnostic Audiology at Boston Childrens Hospital. And theres no doubt that Dr. Fligor is correct.

At maximum volume, MP3s can pump up the volume over 100 decibels. Thats a whole lot of decibels (the measurement of loudness). Sounds in the 80-85 dB range can cause permanent sound-induced hearing loss. 100 dB can trash your hearing system so you spend the rest of your life asking, Huh? Whatd you say? And it can happen even when youre a teen if those ear buds are always planted in the ear canal.

While MP3 players usually come with warnings that listening to music at high volumes will cause hearing loss, a CNN poll found that 59% of teenagers and 34% of adults play their favorite tunes at high volumes. Check it out. By exposing yourself to such loud sound, you damage the sensitive structures of the inner ear, which, in turn, will lead to hearing loss.

Type of Headphones

MP3 players typically come with ear buds - tiny headphones that are placed directly into the ear canal, right up close to all of the organic hearing apparatus nature provided. Because these ear buds are placed directly into the ear canal, they can boost sound levels by as much as nine decibels. Now you know thats not good for you or your head-banging kid.

Headphones that fit over or on the ear are a better choice than ear buds. However, the best choice is to upgrade to noise-isolating or sound-canceling earphones. A study of listening behaviors by Dr. Fligor and colleague, Dr. Terri Ives of the PCO School of Audiology, found that as background noise increases, listeners increase the volume of their music players. In other words, people who normally set their iPods at moderate volume levels choose higher levels when they are in a noisy environment. Users can keep the volume lower by switching to headphones that reduce or block background noise.

Length of Listening Time

With batteries that last up to 12 hours and storage for hundreds of songs, iPod users can hook themselves up and listen to music and podcasts for hours days, even. This means that theres the potential for users to expose themselves to loud sound levels for long periods of time. In fact, a survey conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that a significant percentage of teenagers listen to iPods and other MP3 players from one to four hours every day, with some users listening even longer.

If users are listening to their MP3 players at moderate volume levels, this amount of time isnt likely to cause permanent damage. However, consider these numbers:

  • At 85 decibels, eight hours of listening can cause measurable, permanent hearing loss.
     
  • At 88 decibels, four hours of listening can cause the same amount of damage.
     
  • At 100-105 decibels, damage occurs in just eight to 15 minutes. Ouch! Thats gotta hurt!

Protect your hearing

If you or your child is an avid MP3 user, follow these simple guidelines to protect against hearing loss:

  • Lower the volume (obvious) and listening time (also obvious). General rule of thumb: you can listen to an MP3 player with ear buds at 70% volume level for 60-90 minutes a day without significantly raising the risk of hearing loss. Rock on! If you turn the volume down lower, you can listen longer. In fact, with the volume set at or below 50% of maximum, you can listen for as long as you like without causing hearing damage.

    Note that these are general guidelines. If you work, live, or play in a noisy environment, youll want to reduce your MP3 time even more. As Dr. Kasper points out, Exposure to excessive levels of sound is cumulative. If you spend your day working in a noisy office, give your ears a rest for a while when you get home, instead of plugging yourself into an MP3 player. It's just common sense.
     
  • Invest in noise-isolating or sound-canceling earphones with custom sleeves. This type of device will enable you to keep your MP3 volume lower because you wont be competing with background noise to hear those favorite tunes.
     
  • Have your hearing tested annually by a hearing healthcare provider, an audiologist, for example. Visit your audiologist sooner if you notice any changes to your hearing. During your consultation, ask about ways to reduce your risk of hearing loss.

iPods and other MP3 players, when used irresponsibly may well damage hearing. But listen to the warnings (theyre out there) and follow safety precautions, and you can enjoy healthy hearing and the latest downloads for many years.

Just use common sense whenever you plug in your MP3 player and save your hearing for better things than listening to your compilation of thrash metal rock.

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