Friends, Romans, Countrymen… Lend me your ears.

A post about hearing loss probably isn’t high on anyone’s wish list of topics for me to write about, but I’m curious if anyone else deals with hearing issues during or after flying. My ears are pretty bad for a 37-year old, and it’s largely my fault for routinely having “unprotected aural” during my younger years. I’m not much of a musician anymore, but when I was younger, playing music was the absolute highlight of my life. In fact, while I don’t have many regrets in life, coming to terms with the fact that I would never play in a nationally touring punk rock band took me most of my 20s. (I never wanted to be Bad Religion or anything, but I wouldn’t have minded selling out 500-seat clubs across the country.) However, I just couldn’t bring myself to wear earplugs during rehearsals (and certainly not while performing). I went to my fair share of shows too (also sans hearing protection), but I have a theory that small club gigs are actually worse overall for your hearing, since they aren’t professionally mixed. As a result, you have a bunch of amateurs with equipment that’s WAY too powerful for the venue all competing with each other to be heard over everyone else, basically turning the musical output into an unrelenting buzzsaw of sound for the unlucky audience members.

I finally got wise and started wearing earplugs religiously whenever I was in a loud environment — I even went to an audiologist and got the fancy custom-molded ones with the professional sound filters, which makes the music sound a lot better than with foam plugs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t before I had given myself persistent tinnitus (ringing in the ears) that I will have for the rest of my life (and it will probably get worse as I age). I can’t sleep without a white noise machine, because the ringing drives me nuts. Most of the day I don’t really think about it, but a few times a day I’ll get a zing in one ear that’s really unpleasant. I had my hearing checked, and my overall hearing levels are pretty good, except for a sharp dropoff right at the frequency that constantly rings in my ears.

I try to get my hearing checked every few years to make sure I’m not doing any additional damage, especially considering the amount of time I spend wearing headphones. I started wearing noise-canceling headphones on my commute so I could listen to music at lower volumes without having to fight the noise from the BART train (which itself is so loud that many commuters wear those industrial noise-blocking headsets). Still, between my 2+ hours commuting every day, listening to headphones at work, and then watching TV with headphones at home, I spend probably 7 hours a day in headphones, which means I have to be really careful not to let the volume get too loud. If I do, I’ll notice my ears feeling fatigued by the end of the day, and the ringing at night while I’m trying to sleep will be much louder.

Okay, so that’s a not-so-brief history of my ears, and now I’ll turn it back to flying. Planes are loud. I haven’t measured the decibels in-flight, and it obviously depends on the type of plane and where you’re sitting, but the noise is going to be significant throughout the plane. To compensate for that, most people use noise-canceling headphones, although I’ve noticed that even with quality noise cancelation (I use Bose), I still need my music to be a few clicks louder on a plane in order to hear it above the noise. Movies are even worse, since the sound mixing in a lot of IFE programming is pretty bad, meaning you have to turn it way up to hear quiet conversations and risk blowing out your eardrums whenever there’s a car chase or fight scene.

On long flights, I definitely notice my ears getting fatigued by the end of the flight, and I always deal with increased ringing after flying. From my periodic hearing checks, I know that these episodes aren’t causing general hearing loss, but as I get older, the strain that I’m putting on my ears is concerning me more and more. After all, pain is a pretty good guide, and if my ears are hurting from too much noise, I’m probably not doing them any good. (There’s also my biggest fear to worry about, which is developing hyperacusis rather than hearing loss — for a horrible story of how hyperacusis can destroy your life, check out the history of the band “Azusa Plane.”)

In general, I’m annoyed by stories of how frequent flying is bad for you for whatever reason, mostly because everything is bad for you. If you don’t eat organic food, have a standing desk, do yoga for 2 hours a day, and run marathons, you’re going to die a horrible death, whereas if you do all those things… you’re still going to die, just healthier. Everyone makes healthy choices and unhealthy choices, and I’m positive that people that most vociferously blame flying for health issues are dickwads who are jealous that they’re too lazy to travel. (Well, dickwads or totally justified flight attendants whose careers put them in a toxic environment for hours on end.)

Having said that, I can’t believe that flying doesn’t contribute to hearing loss or tinnitus, and I’m curious whether this is ever an issue for folks who fly six-figure miles per year. Everyone’s ears are different, so I might just be more sensitive to moderate volume than others. Still, the amount of time some people spend under headphones that are turned up high enough to drown engine noise can’t be totally safe. So, I’m interested in HEARING from the commentariat if anyone else deals with this, how you manage it, and if I’m being irrationally paranoid about damaging my ears through flying. Just make sure not to type too loudly.

Editor’s note: I was considering the title “HEAR we go again” instead, but I went with the Shakespeare quote since I wrote this post on a train going from Rome to Venice. The more you know!

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  1. It is terrible that you have to live w/that zinging noise… and worrying about potential hearing loss. It is a scary thought. =/
    It’s not completely related to your condition, but my husband has issues with his Eustachian tube (which controls the pressure in the middle ear area) so he can’t “pop” his ears to regulate the pressure within the ear to match the outside pressure. When it is bad, it can feel like unpopped ears and everything sounds muffled and echo-y for a week or so. It has been going away on its own, but audiologist said it may require surgery down the line if it gets worse (because there’s just no other way to correct this issue). Worst case scenario he could lose his hearing. I’m always so paranoid about this so we take great precaution about flying when he is already congested (because it makes it worse). He worked as an audio editor for almost a decade so I’m also trying to encourage him to wear headphones and earphones less and less now that he is out of the industry.
    We always carry earplugs and try to stay away from clubs and loud concerts also – but this is mostly because I’m now (thankfully) too old for clubs and I’m extra paranoid because my good friend lost most of her hearing from aural abuse when she used to perform a lot on stage as a dancer.


  2. Better By Design says:

    I’m actually going for my first hearing test in 20 years next week… similar but milder issues (and background) than what you are discussing.
    As far as flying, I find noise cancellation makes my ears fatigued faster than regular headphones, and perhaps partly because of the extra volume needed on aircraft.
    At least one co-worker ditched noise cancellation because he couldn’t handle the added pressure it put on his hearing. Mileage clearly varies from person to person


  3. dale m says:

    Plus 1 for the tinnitus worries and the noise cancellation headphones … probably an age element to some of this too, but even for younger folk, the “accumulation” fatigue of hours under the headphones is something most of us haven’t thought about until the ringing is too obvious to ignore (left side for me). With the headphones, the cancellation frequencies and magnitude are quite real … we tend to “feel” them as pressure, but what they’re doing to the inner ear over time is a big question mark. Ironic maybe as the point is to escape noise, and it may be that we’re unwittingly setting ourselves up for a lifetime of inescapable ringing.


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