By Debbe Geiger
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Whoever's rocking your iPod today, do yourself a favor and turn it down. Those tiny earbuds pump music directly into the ear canal, making it easier to do permanent damage. Live music or sports, power tools, and even hair dryers can spell trouble for your hearing, too.
But thankfully, the more you protect your hearing now, the less likely you'll be asking people to repeat themselves later. Here's how you can do it.
Choose a better earbud
It's tempting to crank up the volume on a personal music player because the digital technology cuts back on the usual distortion of loud music. A much healthier move, however, is to use noise-canceling earbuds, which block out excess background noise so you can enjoy music at lower volumes, says Andrew Resnick, Au.D., director of Audiology at New York's Columbia University Medical Center Eastside. If the buds won't stay in your ears, Resnick says noise-canceling headphones are helpful, too. Whatever you use, remember that if the person standing next to you can hear the music, it's too loud. (Health.com: Sharpen your senses )
Savor a little silence
Nix the all-day soundtrack. Researchers at Harvard University-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston who have studied personal music players say one hour a day at 60 percent of the maximum volume is safe. More than an hour isn't. Even rock icon Pete Townshend of The Who, a band famous for earth-shattering sound, is warning fans to listen less and lower the volume. He writes on his blog that years of listening to loud music through headphones has seriously damaged his hearing.
Avoid gym din
Aerobics instructors like to pump up the volume to get people motivated, but a recent study found that 80 percent of health clubs blare music exceeding 105 decibels (dB) in their classes. It's even higher when the instructor belts her directions into a wireless microphone. If the club won't turn down the music, move away from the speakers and wear $1 disposable foam earplugs you can buy at most pharmacies, says lead study author and audiologist Ray Hull, Ph.D., a professor at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Try hi-fi earplugs
Live concerts, loud action films at theaters, and sporting events such as a NASCAR race can send you home with your ears ringing. Officially known as tinnitus, it's a sign of ear damage. Rock concerts are notoriously noisy, and not just right in front of the amps. A recent University of Minnesota study found that pop, rockabilly, and heavy-metal concerts can hurt your hearing no matter where you sit.
If you attend these events often, Resnick recommends high-fidelity earplugs. They let you hear the highs and lows while protecting your ears and allowing you to carry on a conversation. An audiologist can create a custom set ($150 to $200) based on a mold of your ear and the type of music you like best.
To find an expert near you, just go to the Web site for the American Academy of Audiology. A cheaper option: standard high-fidelity earplugs ($10 to $15), available at most music stores and manufacturers' sites. Just keep in mind that they won't last as long or fit as well as custom plugs. Although both types are made of plastic, silicone, or vinyl, custom plugs can be used for several years; the standard ones need replacing after several months.
Block out power-tool noise
If you're a DIYer whose idol is the Toolbelt Diva on the Discovery Home channel, you may need earplugs to match your moxie. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chain saws, power drills, and the like can spew noise at unhealthy volumes.
A government database on the Web lists sound output of power tools by both manufacturer and type; go to http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html and search for "noise solutions."
If your power tools are louder than 85 decibels, head to the drugstore for foam earplugs. (Earmuffs block noise, too, and last longer than ear-plugs, but they can be bulky and uncomfortable.) Most foam plugs have a Noise Reduction Rating indicating how much sound they block. A higher NRR is best for a loud environment, notes Andy Vermiglio, an audiologist at the House Ear Institute, a nonprofit research group in Los Angeles, California. You can use foam earplugs at a live show, of course, but Resnick points out that they will muddy the sound.
Massapequa, New York-based freelancer Debbe Geiger also writes frequently for Newsday.