All ambient noise completely shut out and music blaring loudly into your ears. Sounds familiar? This is an experience we all enjoy. Whether we are walking, riding a bike, driving a car, or travelling by bus, life seems incomplete without a pair of earphones plugged into your ears. But did you know that this habit could potentially make you deaf?
Dr Sunil Narayan Dutt, senior consultant, ENT, Apollo Hospitals calls this trend worrisome. It has a two-fold impact, he explains. "One is the impact loud music has on the inner ear that causes hearing loss and the second is pinna, resulting from plugging those earphones," Dr Dutt says.
He adds that out of the 40 patients that come to the ENT outpatient department, at least one or two are young patients from IT companies and call centres. They come with either tinnitus and noise induced hearing loss or some ear canal inflammations. When a person listens to music for a long period of time, it causes a sustained impact and loss could be permanent. "We are talking about frequencies of 4 kilohertz (kHz) and above. Patients with sudden onset of deafness or progressive hearing loss along with a ringing noise in the ears, suffer from tinnitus. Very rarely there may be transient dizziness or vertigo,” he explains.
Another important side-effect is inflammation of the skin due to prolonged pressure or friction.
This also leads to clogging, ear canal infections and occasional allergic reactions to the plug materials. This is termed as Otitis externa and Perichondritis.
What is it that prompts people to increase the volume of music they are listening to? "When the background noise is higher, in case a person is travelling in an aircraft, there is a natural tendency to increase the volume of the music," says Dr Dutt.
Permissible noise levels
While industrial standards say that up to 85 decibels of exposure for eight hours without protection is acceptable, prolonged exposures of even 70 to 80 decibels for four to six hours can be detrimental.
"To give you an idea of these noise levels, let me tell you that conversational noise levels come up to around 80 decibels. So, loud music leads to hair cell damage in the cochlea. It causes tinnitus and ear block and if one experiences this for more than six hours, it is good to consult an audiologist and get an audiogram done. Auditory fatigue and Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) are usually around 4 kHz frequency and are reversed within 24 to 48 hours. If the exposure is higher than 90 decibels for more than eight hours, the loss may be permanent and this is called Permanent Threshold Shift (PTS). While there are several ways of handling damage caused to your ears, the best way is to control the volumes at which you listen to music on a regular basis,” Dr Dutt says.
Dr Shantanu Tandon, consultant ENT surgeon, Sakra World Hospital says that long term use of earphones leads to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NHIL) where hair cells of the inner ear get damaged. "NHIL is one of the most common outcomes of this problem. It affects all age groups, but is one of the largest causes of non-infective hearing loss in adults, especially teenagers. Youngsters and children are more prone to developing ear damage due to loud sounds," he says.
Use of noise-cancelling headphones, is supposed to be better than earphones. These block out background noise and allow you to lower the volume. Try to take regular breaks from your headphones to give your ears a rest.
Dr T Shivram Shetty from JSS Medical College and Hospital suggests controlling that volume button. “If it is soft music within the range of 40-60 dB for a shorter period of time, it may not cause any ear damage,” he says.
How to listen to music and keep ears safe too
If you cannot live without that dose of music every day, doctors say that there is a method that allows you to listen to music while keeping your ears safe.
Two or three listening episodes of about one to two hours each at mid-volume are recommended for safe listening with earplugs or headphones.
In addition to just how loud the volume of music is, Dr Tandon says that earphones that do not fit properly may easily cause bacterial infection, and fungal disease .
"Hearing loss is the most common problem. Ear infections due to earphone use are uncommon," he notes.
Although early symptoms of NHIL may be mild, symptoms get more pronounced as time progresses, says Dr Tandon.
Signs of hearing loss
■ In the initial stages sounds may become distorted or muffled
■ You may start watching TV or listening to the radio at high volumes
■ You may experience tinnitus-a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head.
■ After small periods of really loud music, you may get an actual hearing loss due to a process called Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS). However, this may partially or completely improve after one or two days.
■ Permanent hearing loss may occur after chronic use.
As soon as one has any of the above symptoms, one should consult an ENT specialist, Dr Tandon advises.
"If an ear infection occurs involving the outer ear passage, it can be treated with medication. Surgery is chosen only if the infection is severe. If surgery is not required for an ear infection, eardrops and medications are usually enough to provide relief from pain or irritation
How earphones slowly damage your ears based on the loudness of the music
Dr Tandon says most earphones produce sound in the range of 95-108 dB at regular volumes and 115 dB at high volumes.
■ At 95 dB, damage will occur after four hours of exposure per day.
■ At 100 dB, damage will occur after two hours of exposure per day.
■ At 105 dB, damage will occur after one hour of exposure per day.
■ At 110 dB, damage will occur after 30 minutes of exposure per day.
■ At 115 dB, damage will occur after 15 minutes of exposure per day.
■ At 120-plus dB, damage occurs almost immediately