QUESTION

I have a little hearing loss, and I don’t want it to get worse. Is it risky for me to listen to music on headphones or be exposed to white noise in my office?

ANSWER

Let’s start with the headphones. It’s the volume of the music—not the use of headphones—that will determine whether your hearing loss will progress. Regardless of whether you are hearing impaired, music poses the same risk for hearing loss as any other sound. Any damage to your auditory system depends on the intensity and the duration of the sound. That is, the louder the sound, the shorter the safe exposure time.

How do you know whether the music on your headphones is too loud? If your ears feel full or dull after removing headphones (whether or not you have hearing loss) and/or you experience ringing or buzzing in the ears, the sound exposure was too loud. Experiencing these symptoms repeatedly creates a higher risk of developing or progressing a hearing loss.

Some smartphones can blast music as high as 120 decibels (dB), so it’s wise to keep the volume at medium or lower and listen with headphones— not earbuds. Noise-canceling headphones reduce outside noise, making it easier to hear your music at a lower volume.

If the volume of the music played through earbuds and over-the-ear headphones is equal, the earbuds will produce a higher intensity level in the ear canal. Earbuds sit deeper in the ear canal, which results in a smaller distance between the end of the speaker and eardrum. The reduced distance increases the intensity of the sound—and can potentially be more damaging.

The same rule of intensity applies to systems that pipe white noise throughout an office. If white noise is played at a low-intensity level, it should not damage your hearing. A good rule of thumb: If two people sitting at a distance of about three feet from each other can hold a conversation without raising their voices to be heard, the white noise is not too loud. But if they must raise their voices or get closer together to be heard, the white noise is too loud. If white noise is played at a safe intensity level, it should not be harmful to hearing.

Important: Any person who has hearing loss should get his/her hearing checked annually. If one’s hearing changes or it becomes even more difficult to hear, that warrants an evaluation as soon as possible. An ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) should be consulted if it’s suspected that a medical problem is causing the change in hearing. An audiologist should be seen for a non-medical issue that may be the cause of hearing loss or a change in hearing.