When it comes to looking after their future selves on a night out, most young people will consider their personal safety, their alcohol (or drug) intake and, perhaps, sexual protection.
A charity, however, advises people to also include a pair of ear plugs in their arsenal. In fact, Action on Hearing Loss (AoHL), a UK-based charitable organisation, says young people should protect themselves from tinnitus in the same way they use contraception to protect themselves from developing a sexually transmitted disease.
With volumes in pubs and clubs at an often near-deafening level, the charity has suggested the installation of vending machines containing colourful ear plugs in bars and nightclubs as a means of making them both accessible and “cool” to revellers.
"Thanks to clever campaigns, posters and adverts over the past few decades, it is now ingrained in all of our culture and minds to grab a condom before a night out – because safe sex is a given, so let's make ear plugs a night-out essential, says Gemma Twitchen, senior audiologist for AoHL. "The ultimate aim is to see them available in the same way that condoms are in vending machines – in a range of colours and design, but perhaps hold off on flavoured ones though.
“You see loads of people walking up and down the High Street wearing big headphones, iPods and more discreet designs, so why not wear tiny ear plugs at a gig or a rave?”
Dr Sandra Cummings, a Dublin-based audiological scientist, believes making young people aware of the dangers of loud noise is vital as hearing problems such as tinnitus are also on the rise among the young population in this country.
"Hearing problems (due to prolonged exposure to loud noises) are definitely an issue with young people in Ireland, " she says. "Cities are particularly noisy places – with public transport, cafes, clubs, pubs and noisy streets – and the result is that young people who are listening to music with ear phones tend to turn the volume up in order to hear their music above the ambient noise levels. This means that the volume levels are louder than what would be regarded as safe. The one-metre rule applies here: if you can hear the music playing in someone's ear phones at a distance of one metre, then it is too loud."
Gary Norman, HSE Clinical Lead for Audiology, says it's not only loud music which can cause lasting hearing damage. "Noise can arise from many sources, historically it came from Walkmans and portable CD players, today it's different technology – smartphones with earphones – and they all contain the same risks," he says. "But it can also arise from power tools, lawnmowers, fireworks and firearms – as well as noisy employment.
“The impact of noise depends primarily upon the noise level (in dB), the duration of the noise exposure and individual susceptibility. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t hear normal speech from a metre away (unless the person is shouting), the noise level is likely to be high enough to warrant caution.”
The overall impact of noise on an individual’s hearing is cumulative during the life time – but the hearing expert says there are many simple ways in which you can reduce the potential damage caused by overexposure to loud noises. “While there are many causes of hearing loss, including ageing, trauma, infections, etc, there are very few that we can actually control,” he says “However, limiting the exposure to high levels of sound, which can lead to noise-induced hearing loss, is within our control and you can minimise the potential impact by being hearing smart.
“You can limit the level of sound exposure (by simply turning it down) and duration (give your ears a break) and if needed use ear protection when exposed to high level of noise, especially if any equipment you are using has a sign of hearing protection on it. If you are concerned about your hearing, discuss with your GP or an audiologist who specialises in hearing.”
Norman says typical signs of the early damaging effects of noise are temporary and include a dullness in hearing – where speech sounds can seem muffled – or a ringing/buzzing (this could be tinnitus) in the ears. And if you are not exposed further to high levels of noise (for example if you experienced it after a concert or a disco) there will be an improvement in these symptoms over a few days as your hearing recovers. This however should be considered a warning that you could be liable to noise damage in the future.
“Further repeated exposure may start to lead to a permanent hearing loss, due to damage of the inner ear hair cells, which actually may not be noticeable for a number of years,” he warns. “This is typically why people do not act on the early subtle symptoms because they do not perceive that there is significant problem at the time. By the time they are aware of a hearing problem the damage is permanent and irreversible.”
Dr Sandra Cummings of Beacon Audiology agrees and says while the problems arising from extended periods of noise exposure can either cause temporary or permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, there are ways in which people can combat this.
“It is better to wear over-the-ear headphones – for example something like Beats headphones rather than ear bud headphones,” she says. “The reason for this is that there is better noise cancelling with over-the-ear headphones than with the ear bud variety so when using this type you don’t need to turn the volume up as high (as with earbuds) in order to hear and enjoy the music.
“Also make sure to always be mindful of noise levels, limit exposure and do use noise attenuation ear plugs when going to a very noisy concert.”