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Ask the expert: Teen hearing loss

Q: My teenager spends a lot of time listening to music through earbuds. Can this cause hearing problems?

A:  Hearing loss, a problem common later in life, has become an issue for teens and young adults. Hearing loss in U.S. adolescents has increased about 30 percent, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Unsafe use of earbuds may increase risk for noise-induced hearing loss.

Listening to loud music isn't a new problem for young ears. Parents of teens likely played their stereos or radios at high volumes when they were young. The biggest difference is earbuds are actually little speakers placed directly in the ear.

Listening to music at full volume using earbuds can produce a sound level as high as 100 decibels (dB) inside the ear. Compare music played at 100 dB to these sound levels:

  • 60 dB for normal conversation
  • 90 dB for a lawnmower
  • 110 dB for live concerts
  • 120 dB for a jet plane at takeoff
  • 140 dB for gun shots, fireworks or a custom car stereo at full volume

Hearing loss can be caused by prolonged exposure to sound over 85 dB. Thirty minutes of loud sound can begin to damage ears. At 70 percent of maximum volume, a typical MP3 player's volume is about 85 dB.

Here's some sound advice when listening to music with earbuds: Follow the 60/60 rule. Keep the music at no more than 60 percent of maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes. After an hour of music, stop listening (or ask your child to stop listening) for an hour.

Use headphones. Headphone speakers are further away from the ear and often have foam padding to reduce external noise. Volume also doesn't need to be up as high to hear the music well.

If you suspect your child has a hearing problem, a hearing test can detect whether he or she can or can't hear sounds they should be able to hear.

 Douglas Wood, Au.D.

Douglas Wood, Au. D.
Audiology

Sees patients at Marshfield Clinic Marshfield Center