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Sound Advice on Hearing Protection for Young Ears

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs when tiny sensory cells in our inner ear, called hair cells, are damaged by sounds that are too loud and that last too long. How near we are to the source of the noise also matters. NIHL can be permanent—but it is preventable. Help make sure that your family enjoys healthy hearing for a lifetime by learning about hearing protectors and their use.

When are hearing protectors needed?

Hearing protectors are needed whenever a person’s hearing is exposed to noise levels that exceed a certain level and time. In the workplace, scientists have set this level at 85 decibels (dB) for exposures longer than eight continuous hours. The permissible exposure time is cut in half for every three-decibel increase in noise level. For example, at 88 decibels, hearing protectors are required after four continuous hours of exposure. At 91 decibels, hearing protectors are required after just two continuous hours of exposure. When noise reaches 104 decibels, hearing protectors are required for exposures of less than four minutes.

In practical terms, this means that your child won’t damage his or her hearing by temporarily cranking up the volume for a favorite song or by taking a short ride on the subway. On the other hand, your child may damage his or her hearing by listening to music at maximum volume for just a few hours. The same is true when your child participates in any activity that exceeds a safe noise level and listening time.

Parent protecting kids hearing

Your child should wear hearing protectors while using a lawnmower (90 decibels), operating many power tools (90–110 decibels), or riding a snowmobile or tractor (100 decibels). Hearing protectors also may be necessary when your child attends some sporting events and musical performances. Car races can reach 120 decibels. Any type of concert—not just rock concerts—can be too loud (90–130 decibels). Noise is noise, regardless of the source.

Hearing protectors are an absolute must if your child hunts or takes part in shooting sports. The sound of a gunshot can reach 140 decibels. This is the same level as a jet engine at takeoff. At this level, noise can damage your child’s hearing immediately and permanently. Make hearing protectors part of your child’s standard shooting-safety gear.

Children often will indicate when a noise is too loud by placing their hands over their ears. This action will not protect their hearing, but it is a good sign that hearing protectors may be needed. Watch your child for clues that the sound is too loud and have hearing protectors handy.


How do hearing protectors work?

Hearing protectors work by reducing the level of sound that reaches hair cells in our inner ear. They do not block out all noise, but just make all noises sound softer.

Different hearing protectors offer different levels of protection, as shown by their Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR. The higher the NRR, the greater the protection they offer. If a hearing protector has an NRR of 22, it will reduce a potentially harmful noise by 22 decibels. So a 100-decibel noise (the decibel level of a motorcycle) will be reduced to a safe level of 78 decibels (100 - 22 = 78).

What types of hearing protectors are available?

Two types of hearing protectors are available: earmuffs and earplugs. Earmuffs look like wireless headphones. The part that fits over the ear is often filled with fluid, foam, or both to make sure that the earmuffs fit comfortably and closely. Many manufacturers make special earmuffs that are lightweight and colorful for children. Earmuffs cost more than earplugs, but they are easier than earplugs for young children to put on correctly. You also won’t have to worry about the earmuffs sliding out. However, children who wear glasses may find earmuffs uncomfortable. The earmuffs also may not seal properly over glasses.

Earplugs are soft foam or harder plastic inserts that fit directly into the ear canal. Earplugs are cheaper than earmuffs, and come in both disposable and reusable types. Earplugs also are easy to carry around in a purse or pocket, ready for use at any time. Even if you buy earmuffs for you and your child, you also might want to have some spare earplugs on hand.

Expandable foam earplugs are designed to be rolled into a thin cylinder that is inserted about halfway into the ear canal. Once inserted, the earplug reshapes itself to fill the canal snugly. The sidebar shows a three-step method for inserting expandable foam earplugs that was developed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Some foam earplugs are available with a neck strap so that your child can keep them handy and not lose one if it falls out accidently.

Premolded earplugs are made from plastic, rubber, or silicone. These plugs have a tapered shape, similar to an ice cream cone. If washed between uses and cared for properly, premolded earplugs can be used repeatedly. Plug styles that are sold in different sizes are generally recommended for use by children, who will need a smaller size than that used by an adult. A proper-fitting plug will seal your child’s ear without being uncomfortable. As with the foam earplug, your child may notice a full feeling at first, but he or she will get used to it over time. To fit a premolded earplug, have your child reach over his or her head and pull up on one ear. Your child should use the other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until it feels tight in the ear canal.

Many manufacturers now make earmuffs and earplugs in sizes to fit children. To find a list of manufacturers on the Internet, type “hearing protectors for children” into your computer’s search engine. Your local drug store and hardware store also will carry some protectors. Check to make sure that the earplugs are not too large for your child’s ears or that the earmuffs are not too loose for your child’s head.


To get the best protection from your soft foam earplugs, remember to roll, pull, and hold when putting them in. Use clean hands to keep from getting dirt and germs into your ears!
Roll the earplug

Roll the earplug up into a small, thin "snake" with your fingers. You can use one or both hands.
Pull the top of your ear up

Pull the top of your ear up and back with your opposite hand to straighten out your ear canal. The rolled-up earplug should slide right in.
Hold the ear plug with your finger

Hold the earplug in with your finger. Count to 20 or 30 out loud while waiting for the plug to expand and fill the ear canal. Your voice will sound muffled when the plug has made a good seal.
Text Credit: NIOSH