If you're planning to head to a concert or music festival this spring or summer, there's one item you shouldn't forget to pack: earplugs.
Though they may not be the first thing that comes to mind when listening to live music, earplugs could help save your hearing, according to a new study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
Hearing loss has become a rising health issue in recent years. The World Health Organization reports that 360 million people globally have disabling hearing loss. In the U.S., the prevalence of hearing loss in adolescents increased by 31 percent between 1988 and 2006, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Though a number of factors are at play, experts say a big contributor to this trend is the increase in exposure to recreational noise, including loud music at venues like concerts, music festivals, and nightclubs. Attendees of these events can be exposed to music with sound pressure levels of about 100 to 110 dBA (a measure of decibels with low frequencies reduced) for several hours. Such exposure is known to cause at least temporary hearing loss.
"85 dBA is considered the cut off between safe and potentially unsafe loudness levels," Sharon A. Sandridge, Ph.D, Director of the Audiology Clinical Services Head and Neck Institute at Cleveland Clinic, explained. "Examples of 85 dBA include soft rock music, the dial tone from the old rotary phones, and some music players set at the volume setting of half on. According to NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), you can be exposed to sounds that are 85 dBA for 8 hours per day and be safe."
However, to remain safe, when loudness increases, exposure time needs to decrease. "So you can listen to 100 dBA sounds, but for only 15 minutes," Sandridge told CBS News. "It is important to understand that there is a trade-off. It is not just the loudness that is a factor, it is how loud and for how long a person is listening to the sound."
Though it may make logical sense that earplugs would help protect hearing while exposed to loud music at concerts, until now, there was little scientific proof to back up that claim.
For the study, researchers from the Netherlands randomly assigned 51 people, with an average age of 27, attending an outdoor music festival in Amsterdam into two groups: one in which the participants wore ear plugs and another where they did not. The subjects, who were advised to avoid excessive use of alcohol or drugs, had their hearing evaluated right before and immediately after the four-and-a-half hour festival.
Members of the research team also measured the time-averaged, sound pressure level at the festival and found it to be 100 dBA.
The study found that only 8 percent of people who wore earplugs experienced hearing loss following this exposure, compared with 42 percent of those in the unprotected group. Additionally, fewer participants wearing earplugs felt a ringing in their ears -- a condition known as tinnitus -- following the festival, compared to those who did not wear earplugs (12 percent versus 40 percent).
The findings are important, the authors say, as repeated instances of loud music exposure can add up to longterm damage.
"It is believed that frequent recurrent transient hearing loss episodes due to loud sounds will eventually induce permanent hearing loss," lead study author Dr. Wilko Grolman, of the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, told CBS News in an email. "This is not what we demonstrated in our study and it would be very difficult to prove in any study, however it is very likely. So, yes avoiding loud recreational noise will prevent long-term hearing loss caused by loud sounds."
The researchers conclude: "This... [study] adds evidence that earplugs are effective in preventing temporary hearing loss during high recreational music levels. Therefore, the use of earplugs should be actively promoted and encouraged to avoid noise-induced hearing loss."
Sandridge, who was not involved with the study, said previous research involving hearing protection in industrial settings supports this conclusion, as well.
"Appropriate hearing protection devices will reduce the risk of long-term hearing loss," she said. "Even though we have minimal research to support that statement for recreational noise, it has been well proven in the occupational/industrial world."
Grolman also emphasized that frequent exposure to loud music on personal devices like iPods and loud sounds in other environments should also be reduced to protect hearing. "Remember, once our normal hearing is gone there is no treatment available to ever bring it back," he said.