If you’re a festival-goer, gig-regular or love nothing more than hitting the dance floor on a night out, we have some bad news.
Experts have weighed in on the damage that is done to audience members’ hearing at music events and have agreed that just one loud event can cause damage to the ears.
While many are aware of the health risks that musicians face - in fact, just this week Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp spoke out about his relentless battle with tinnitus - it’s not necessarily something that’s on the minds of those in the audience.
As Bridgitte Harley, director of The Hearing Clinic, puts it: “We don’t shove sharp objects into our eyes as part of some recreational experience, so we really shouldn’t be blasting our ears with loud music.”
Loudness of a sound is measured in decibels (dB) and experts agree that exposure to noise at or above 85 dB can damage hearing over time. Worryingly, the average nightclub has a noise level of over 100dB and the average gig is 110dB.
“Even one gig can cause hearing loss, tinnitus or hyperacusis,” Bridgitte Harley tells The Huffington Post UK.
The inner ear is home to minute hair cells called stereocilia. Harley Street Hearing Clinic audiology manager Matthew Allsop describes these as like tiny piano keys which, when stimulated, generate a nerve impulse that’s sent to the brain. The brain then decodes those messages to decipher what the ear has heard.
Continual exposure to these loud sounds wears out the hair cells, which can result in irreversible hearing loss. However the process is usually gradual one, meaning the signs may not always be totally obvious to begin with.
“It’s quite common to experience your hearing sounding dull and you will also more than likely experience tinnitus after being exposed to loud noise,” says Gemma Twitchen, a senior audiologist for Action on Hearing Loss.
“This can last a few days, but varies depending on the levels of noise you were exposed to and the duration you were exposed for.”
Loud noise can also trigger a debilitating condition called hyperacusis, where everyday sounds like flushing the toilet, opening crisp packets or travelling on the tube trigger immense pain in the ears.
“It can be so painful for some that some sufferers can collapse upon hearing an everyday sound,” explains Harley. “Many hyperacusis suffers end up housebound and have to permanently wear ear defenders, eat off paper plates and avoid hoovering.”
With noise damage, everyone is different, so while some people may experience harm from just one night out, others can be resilient for longer.
Allsop says: “I have seen patients who have been to a single gig and ended up damaging their hearing. The more that you go to without hearing protection, the greater the chance of causing yourself permanent damage.”
Harley likens hearing loss to sun exposure: “Some folks can spend hours in the sun and they just tan nicely and don’t really burn. Others can spend half an hour in the sun and may burn and blister straight away.
“The ears are a bit like this. Some ears can be irreversibly damaged after just one bit of exposure, while others aren’t. We cannot predict who will suffer damage and who may just about get away with it.”
So how can you tell if your ears are being slowly damaged?
If your ears are ringing after a gig or night out, then this is a sign that your ears have been over-exposed to sound, explains Harley.
Likewise, people who find it difficult to hear properly in background noise, may be experiencing a subtle sign of hearing loss.
It’s pretty terrifying that just one loud music event can cause irreversible damage to the ears. But that doesn’t mean you should be put off going to festivals and gigs. In fact, there are a few solutions to help protect the ears, such as using ear plugs or standing away from the speakers.
“If you are aware of the risks and take the simple steps to protect yourself, you can still enjoy the music,” says Gemma Twitchen.
“If you are closer to the speakers, the sound will be much louder and the length of time for damaging ears will be much shorter. We recommend not standing close or next to the speakers, and to wear ear plugs which will help to protect your ears.”
While foam ear plugs can prevent some damage, experts recommend for fans and musicians to have custom-made hearing protection, where a mould is taken of the ear.
Twitchen adds: “The misconception with ear plugs is that if you wear them you can’t hear or enjoy the music. But this is not true.”