Say What? Earplugs Work at Concerts, So Use Them, Experts Say

Hearing loss has increased 31 percent in the two decades since 1988, thanks to loud concert venues. Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS

Most people think hearing loss is something that happens to old people. But experts say many people begin to lose hearing function at a much younger age, in part due to music festivals, nightclubs with quality acoustics, Spotify and designer headphones.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the prevalence of hearing loss has increased 31 percent in the two decades since 1988. In many venues that feature live music, sound levels can reach as high as 100 to 110 decibels—loud enough to lead to permanent eardrum damage. Even more alarming: An MP3 player used at maximum sound has a decibel level of 105. The good news, however, is that everyone can prevent this with a simple and very underrated device: earplugs.

New research published April 7 in JAMA Otolaryngology—Head Neck Surgery finds earplugs make a dramatic difference in preventing hearing loss, especially when it comes to recreational exposure. The study involved 50 participants, recruited on social media, who attended a music festival in Amsterdam. Through random assignments, the researchers gave half the group earplugs. The four-and-a-half-hour concert occurred at around 100 decibels.

The researchers found temporary threshold shift (a measure of hearing loss) in 8 percent of participants who wore earplugs during the show, versus 42 percent who did not wear them. They also found that tinnitus—ringing in the ears—occurred in 40 percent of volunteers who didn't wear earplugs and 12 percent who did.

Most people don't realize that even short-term exposure—a single night at a loud dance club or that Beyoncé concert—is enough to cause what's known as acoustic trauma. In a person with normal hearing, sound moves from the pinna—the cartilage at the top of the ear—and makes its way through the ear canal to the eardrum, which causes it to vibrate. This vibration is sent to three small bones within the ear called the malleus, incus and stapes. Then these vibrations are passed on to the cochlea, a small, fluid-filled, snail-shaped sac. When the vibrations hit the cochlea, they cause tiny hair cells attached to nerves to bend, which sends an electric signal to the brain that's recognized as sound.

Loud noise disrupts the process, causing overstimulation of the tiny hairs and eventually leads to cell death in the inner ear. Loud noise also affects the fluid balance in the cochlea.

Most people recoup their hearing after temporary loss due to exposure to loud music and other overwhelming noise (including gunshots and firecrackers). Still, the researchers say, chronic exposure to such overwhelming sound can eventually cause irreversible damage, which is something every passionate music lover needs to hear.