Most of us don't wear earplugs to concerts, and we probably won't end up being plagued by hearing problems. But based on the statistics behind noise-induced hearing loss and the sheer loudness of a typical concert, it's clear how much a risk you're taking when you go to a show unprotected. After all, the most common cause of hearing loss is loud noise. For some people, the reality of that risk has serious consequences. Joey Belanger, a 25-year-old living in Vancouver, is one such example. Since he was 18 or 19, he's had a constant ringing in his ears and has trouble hearing people when they aren't facing him. He blames it on being exposed to lots of loud music during concerts and while playing in bands as a teenager. Now, doing either of those is out of the question.
"I can't go to concerts anymore," says Belanger, "and if I go to the movie theatre my ears ring louder after so I usually try to avoid there and just watch movies at home."
You don't have to look hard to find forums filled with people lamenting their hearing loss or tinnitus after years of going to concerts without wearing earplugs. It's an understandable oversight; you're excited about the show and you're not really thinking about it, or you had brought some, but either lost or forgot them at home. And sure, it's loud, but it's not usually painfully loud, is it?
"Wouldn't it be great if when you damaged your hearing, blood gushed out of your ears?" asks Dr. Marshall Chasin, a Toronto audiologist and author of Hear the Music: Hearing Loss Prevention for Musicians. "It would be so obvious," he says. "But because hearing loss from loud music is so gradual and invisible, it's hard to educate people."
Concerts typically reach between 100 and 120 decibels. At 110 decibels, hearing damage can happen after only two minutes of exposure. One study found that only 8 percent of people who wore earplugs during exposure to that decibel level experienced hearing loss, compared with nearly half of those percent of those in the unprotected group. Dr. Chasin explains that while hearing loss may not be noticeable until you reach your 40s or 50s, tinnitus can start very early and get worse. (Here's just one example of what tinnitus sounds like, if you're curious.)
Bradley Waitman, a 19-year-old from Wasilla, Alaska, has tinnitus; he rarely went to concerts because of where he lives; in his case, he blames loud music through earphones several hours a day. Experts say millennials are at an increased risk for hearing loss and tinnitus already because of an increased exposure to "recreational noise" like concerts and nightclubs, and because of how much time we spend listening to music using earbuds.
"When I first noticed it, I became extremely angry at myself for being irresponsible and irreversibly hurting myself and became very reclusive. I couldn't come to terms with the reality that I will probably never experience silence or listen to music without worrying again," says Waitman. "I listen to music far, far less. I refuse to use headphones or go to shows because I'm too paranoid my condition will worsen and become disruptive again. Music is much less enjoyable now. It's never relaxing because of the underlying paranoia that I'll damage my ears again, and it reminds me that my ears will never be the same again."
More and more venues are now offering free or cheap earplugs, which ought to make hearing protection a more visible and convenient part of the concert experience and act as a helpful reminder to people who showed up without them. The kind of earplugs venues offer are generally the foam kind, which sound similar to sticking your fingers in your ears—that is, they block out mostly treble and make the music sound all muddled—but they're much safer than nothing. If you're a frequent concertgoer, or just care about hearing a live performance the way it's meant to be heard, there are lots of affordable options for earplugs that are designed to preserve sound fidelity while lowering loudness. Here are a few options: ER-20XS, DUBS, Earasers, V-MODA Faders VIP, and LiveMus!c HearSafe.
If you're really dedicated and have the money, you can also consider visiting an audiologist to get custom-made earplugs designed specifically for your ears. "This is certainly something to be concerned about but I wouldn't go overboard; we don't have a generation or two of deafened music listeners out there, just a slightly greater-than-normal number," says Dr. Chasin. "I think that it's just habit. If people get in the habit of taking a few minutes to grab some earplugs — any earplugs — before going to the concert and throwing them in your pocket or purse, then things will be better."
Adam Feibel is a writer based in . Follow him on Twitter.