How your ears work
Deep inside the ear sits the cochlea, a fluid-filled chamber that’s shaped a bit like a snail shell. It’s lined with thousands of sound-sensing cells called ‘hair cells’.
Hair cells are essential for your hearing: they pick up sound waves (vibrations) that travel into the ear from the outside world and convert them into electrical signals. The hearing nerve then sends these signals to the brain, which recognises them as different sounds, such as people talking or footsteps.
How loud music affects your ears
Ears are super sensitive and can detect the tiniest of sounds, but they’re not designed to withstand loud noise for long periods of time. Noise is measured using the decibel (dB) scale. Experts agree that hair cells can start to become damaged at 85dB and above.
Once damaged, these hair cells are not replaced, and the electrical signals passed to the brain are reduced or stopped. You may not notice the damage to your ears at this stage, or you may find you have dulled hearing for a day or two. But, over time, the hearing loss will become noticeable.
Research has shown that when hair cells are damaged, neurons (nerve cells in the brain) start searching for electrical signals that aren’t being received from the ear and may become hyperactive. It’s been suggested that this hyperactivity makes the brain more aware of the electrical ‘noise’ from the neurons, which is heard as tinnitus. Again, this can be temporary, but if you continue to expose your ears to loud noise, it’s likely that the tinnitus will become permanent.
An easy way to remember how easily damage is done
You can think of loud music affecting hair cells when you’re on a night out a bit like the way a fresh patch of grass is affected by someone trampling over it. Before the person walks on the grass, it stands upright and tall.
Over the course of a night, someone tramples on this patch and some of the blades of grass remain flattened. Over a day or two, some of the blades of grass may pop back up, but if someone keeps trampling over the patch of grass, more damage will be done, and the damage will become permanent.
Look after your ears – before it's too late
Noise-related hearing loss and tinnitus are avoidable, so don’t leave it too late. Protect your ears now – you’ve only got one pair:
Carry earplugs with you when you’re on a night out – the kind designed for clubbers and musicians don’t muffle sound, just make it a bit quieter and a lot safer.
If you’re out clubbing, stay away from the speakers and take regular breaks from the loudest areas – chillout zones are perfect for this. There are no laws to protect your hearing at clubs – it’s up to you!
When listening to music on your phone, don’t go over the ‘safe’ volume level that appears on the screen when you change the volume.
Invest in some noise-cancelling headphones – not only will these block out the noise around you, they also mean you don’t have to turn up the volume to a dangerous level to hear your music properly.