People watching colorful fireworks.

Summer is prime time for outdoor concerts with stacks of booming speakers, large sporting events with chanting, cheering crowds, and eye-popping fireworks displays. But these activities have a potential negative in common: They can be noisy enough to harm you.

“People always think of summer as a time to enjoy being outside, but they don’t stop to think about the fact that many of their favorite activities can damage their hearing permanently,” says Lisa Christensen, Au.D., president of the American Academy of Audiology.
 

That’s because exposure to loud noise can damage the microscopic hair cells in your inner ear that convey sound to your brain—at least temporarily. 

While these cells can often bounce back from a one-time ear-ringing event—like the Taylor Swift concert where you serve as chaperone for your kids or grandkids—the effects of such aural assaults can mount up and cause permanent harm over time.

More on Hearing

The louder the noise, the less time it takes to damage hearing, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Anything between 85 and 100 decibels, or dB, such as a power lawn mower, jet ski, or motorboat or motorcycle engine, can affect your hearing within an hour or two. And if construction or road work is going on near your home, those chainsaws and jackhammers are even louder, at 110 dB. 

Many outdoor sporting events or rock concerts can clock in between 94 and 110 dB—and may damage your ears within 15 minutes. “People assume they’re safer for your hearing since they’re outside, but they can still be at high enough volumes to damage your hearing,” Christensen says.

Fireworks can produce sound in the 150-decibel range at 3 feet, ASHA says, which can cause immediate ear pain or injury. That’s why “most cases of hearing damage we see from them occur when people set them off themselves, in their own backyard,” Christensen says. “They think they have enough time to move away before the firecrackers go off, but they don’t.”

Protective Steps That Work

Whether you’re heading to a concert or mowing the lawn, the best way to safeguard your hearing is to wear proper ear protection, says Elizabeth Levine-Davis, Au.D., an audiologist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York City. You can also take other smart steps. Here’s what to do:

Check the noise level at loud events. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a free sound level app for iOS devices. If the level is 85 dB or more (or simply bothering you or your children), use ear protection or move to a quieter area. In general, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends staying at least 500 feet away from sources of loud noise, such as concert stages or speakers, and fireworks launch sites. 

Wear earplugs or protective earmuffs. Whether you choose earmuffs or earplugs, which come in foam, silicone, or plastic, it’s best to look for a noise-reduction rating of at least 32 dB. “The higher the rating, the more sound is blocked out,” Christensen says. But according to ASHA, “basic earplugs, which can be picked up at most drugstores, offer surprisingly good hearing protection for most teens and adults.” For maximum protection, roll earplugs tightly before insertion, so they can closely conform to your ear canal, Christensen says.

Don’t rely on your iPhone earbuds for protection; they’re designed to enhance hearing, not block sound. (But if you’re listening to music through a device, some kinds of headphones may be better than others at protecting your ears.)

Take extra care with kids. Ear protection is especially important for children, who are more sensitive to loud noises because their ear canals are smaller. “The sound pressure generated by their ears is greater than in adults, so a loud noise becomes even louder for them and can do more damage,” Christensen says. Earmuffs are a better option for infants and toddlers because it’s hard to find ear plugs that will fit their tiny ear canals (and most younger children won’t tolerate them anyway), Christensen says. Older children may also be better off with well-fitting earmuffs, ASHA says.

Consider ‘concert’ earplugs. If you’re attending a concert and are concerned that protective devices may muffle the sound of the music, you might choose products known as uniform attenuation earplugs (sometimes called high-fidelity earplugs), Levine-Davis says. These will bring down the volume but maintain the quality of the sound. 

Fireworks? Skip the DIY type. If you want to see fireworks this July Fourth, you’re probably better off going to a public display, where launch sites are usually roped off so that you can view (and hear) them from a safe distance. 

What to Do If Your Ears Are Ringing

If you notice that your ears are ringing during or after an event or activity, that’s a sign of temporary damage to your hair cells, Levine-Davis says. It should subside within a few hours, she says, but in the meantime, get to a quiet area, which will help the hair cells heal.

If it doesn’t get better after a day or so, you should make an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat doctor or an audiologist, Christensen says. You may need to be tested for hearing loss.