Last updated: Aug 30, 2010
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Roshini Raj, MD, is Health's medical editor and co-author of What the Yuck?! The Freaky & Fabulous Truth About Your Body. Board-certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine, Dr. Raj is an assistant professor of medicine at New York University Medical Center and a contributor on the Today show. In our new book, Dr. Raj fields personal and provocative questions-about your body, sex, even celeb health fads.



Q: Is my iPod making me deaf?

A: You may have heard that one in five American teens suffer from hearing loss, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). That's a 30% increase from just 20 years ago. What's making all these teens deaf? Likely the same thing you're worried about-iPods, concerts, and loud music. And while this study was specifically looking at teens, it serves as a warning for all of us who've been known to pop in some earbuds and rock out.

Audiologists and hearing experts have been sounding the alarm over hearing loss associated with MP3 players for a few years now. Twenty-six million adults have high-frequency hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises-aka noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

The risk of hearing loss from an iPod depends on how loud you're cranking it up. Most MP3 players have a maximum decibel level (decibels are how we measure sound) of 100, but a few independent studies have found that they can go as high as 120.

So what does that mean? Well, the sound of an ambulance siren is about 120 decibels. Would you listen to that for several hours every day of the week? (The average American who has an iPod listens to her iPod two hours every day.) Here's another way to think about it: By law, employees exposed to on-the-job noise of about 115 decibels for longer than 15 minutes must have sound-protection equipment.

You might be saying to yourself, 'Well, I only listen to it halfway up most of the time.' That's good; it's possible you're not getting yours high enough to cause any damage (sounds below 75 decibels don't usually harm hearing). But hearing loss can be the result of a one-time exposure to an intense sound, or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels. The louder the noise, the shorter the time period before NIHL begins. Have you ever turned your iPod up to rock out to your favorite Nirvana song? Or pumped up the volume to drown out background street noises? You may have permanently damaged your hearing.

To prevent further harm, always use the middle setting or lower on your iPod's volume control. As a rule of thumb, if you are using earphones and someone next to you can hear your music (or worse-identify the song!), it's too loud.

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