People at a concert listening to music.

Wearing protective devices such as earplugs or ear muffs in noisy situations can reduce your exposure to loud sounds that can damage your hearing.

But few people appear to be taking this simple step during leisure activities, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis, published in the MMWE. 

In fact, only about 8 percent of Americans reported consistently wearing protective hearing devices during loud sporting and entertainment events, according to the CDC analysis of a 2018 survey of 6,357 people across the U.S.  

That's a problem, say experts. "Sound intensity at recreational events can reach hazardous levels and may remain high for the duration of the event, thereby increasing the risk for hearing damage," the authors say.

Here, what you need to know to protect your ears from too much noise—and the surprising factors that can damage your hearing.

More on Hearing Health

Most people with hearing loss are older adults, and for them, factors such as natural changes in the inner ear are common contributors.

But hearing issues can occur at any age. “Hearing loss is generally seen as a regular part of aging, but now we’re starting to recognize it as a big problem” for everyone, says Paul Dybala, Ph.D., an audiologist and president of Healthy Hearing, a website devoted to educating people on hearing issues.

In fact, last spring, the World Health Organization forecasted that by 2050, an estimated 900 million people around the world will have a disabling hearing loss. That’s a 93 percent jump from the current 466 million people.

What’s behind the increase? The population of older adults is growing, WHO reports. But other hearing-harming culprits include exposure to loud sounds from personal audio devices such as smartphones and iPods, rock concerts, loud bars, and noisy workplaces; the side effects of certain medications; ear infections; and the persistence worldwide of illnesses such as measles, mumps, and rubella. 

Some hearing risk factors may affect younger people disproportionately. For instance, a WHO report from 2015 found that almost half of those between ages 12 and 35 crank up their personal audio devices to unsafe levels.

Surprising Reasons for Hearing Loss

In a world full of noise—honking vehicles, amplified music, power mowers, and jackhammers—it’s important to take steps to safeguard your hearing. But some of the sounds you’ll want to protect yourself from might surprise you.

For example, you probably expect your ears to ring after a rock concert, but they might do the same after a fireworks display. In fact, hearing experts say just one exposure to a typical pyrotechnics show can permanently damage your hearing.

And according to the CDC, having a dog barking in your ear can harm your hearing in just a couple of minutes. 

Loud bursts of noise aren’t the only problem, however. Over time, even sounds that may seem innocuous, such as the constant hum of a loud window air conditioner or refrigerator, can cause damage.

How to Prevent Hearing Loss

1. Know what’s risky. Sounds are measured in decibels (dBA). Though individual tolerances vary, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that workplace exposure be below 85 dBA throughout an 8-hour workday. Legal workplace limits are 90 dBA. (For comparison, handheld hair dryers can emit 77 to 92 dBA.)

Consumer Reports’ health and safety experts say that prolonged exposure to 70 dBA—the sound produced by a shower—or less is safe for most people.

Experts generally agree that sounds exceeding 100 dBA—a level that can easily be surpassed by rock concerts, sporting events, movie theaters, gas lawn mowers and snow blowers, some MP3 players played at maximum volume, and fireworks displays—can be hazardous even in short bursts. 

2. Block out loud sounds. If you’re stuck in a noisy space, you can dampen the sound with earmuffs or earplugs. Foam earplugs are a low-tech, inexpensive way to protect your ears. You can find them at any drugstore for about $3.50 for a set of 10. Earplugs are even sold at many concerts, right alongside the T-shirts.

If you want to ensure that you get the maximum sound quality at concerts, head to an audiologist for custom-fitted earplugs. They’re more expensive than the foam type but will let in a richer sound at a live show.

3. Use headphones wisely. One-fifth of teenagers are estimated to have some form of hearing loss, which experts attribute to the ever-increasing use of headphones and earbuds.

The easiest way to help prevent hearing loss from personal listening devices such as iPhones and MP3 players is to follow the 60/60 rule: Listen at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes per day. Using over-the-ear headphones—especially the noise-canceling kind—instead of earbuds may also help prevent damage. 

4. Make sure your ears are clear. Sometimes keeping hearing sharp means nothing more than ensuring that nothing is blocking the ear canal, such as impacted earwax.

“A percentage of people, particularly those who are younger and who have early losses, have correctable things as simple as wax,” says James C. Denneny III, M.D., CEO of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. This is also common in people who wear hearing aids, where the lack of air ventilation in the ears can cause wax buildup.

And if you do clean your ears with cotton swabs or use cotton balls as earplugs, any cotton residue can interfere with your hearing.

Have your doctor check your ears for an overabundance of earwax or bits of cotton if you have any concerns. “I would encourage people to at least have a basic exam to start with and then work from there,” Denneny says. In both cases, your doctor can clear the way.

But do break the cotton ball/cotton swab habit; it’s potentially dangerous. Research published in 2017 in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 34 U.S. kids are treated in emergency rooms every day as a result of injuries caused by cotton swabs in the ear. In fact, experts say, don’t put any object in your ears unless it’s under a doctor’s supervision.

5. Punch up your healthy habits. Making a few lifestyle tweaks, such as improving your diet and getting more physical activity, may be good for your hearing. Last May, researchers from Harvard University published a study in The Journal of Nutrition that analyzed the eating patterns of nearly 71,000 women for 22 years. Those who followed the most healthful eating plans—including the Mediterranean diet (which emphasizes fruits, nuts, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and fish) and the DASH diet (which limits red and processed meats, sodium, and sugar)—had about a 30 percent lower risk of hearing loss than those who ate less healthfully.

The researchers think a nutritious diet may help protect against hearing loss by keeping the blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the inner ear healthy.

High blood glucose levels and smoking may damage these blood vessels as well. In fact, according to the American Diabetes Association, hearing loss is twice as common in people with type 2 diabetes as it is in others. And a large study from Japan, published in March in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, suggested that smoking is associated with a higher risk of hearing loss.

For these reasons, experts say, it’s important to eat right, aim to quit smoking if you do smoke, and incorporate exercise—which can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes—into your regular routine.