Mile High Hearing Protection

In 2014, I became a frequent flier (I flew on almost 100 flights that year!). When I first started flying regularly, I noticed the following things:

  • Difficulty hearing: I frequently struggled to understand flight attendants or other passengers. I had to really focus on what was being said in order to communicate effectively.
  • Tinnitus and muffled hearing: After a flight, my ears often rang with a low-frequency hum and sometimes my hearing was a little muffled, especially after long flights.
  • Fatigue: I regularly felt mentally exhausted after the flight, no matter what time of the day I flew.

Why was I having these experiences? The answer is, exposure to loud levels of noise and here is why:

  • Difficulty hearing: Noise levels on a plane range a great deal and are dictated by the size of the plane, the number of engines the plane has and where the measurement is taken (e.g. cockpit, over the wing, back of aircraft). According to the Noise Navigators Sound Level Database, noise levels in the cabin of a commercial airplane can range from 75-92dB. For frame of reference, speech typically occurs at about 66dB. So, it’s no surprise I experienced difficulty hearing others! Most individuals’ voices, especially those with quiet and/or high-pitched voices, are masked by the airplane noise.
  • Tinnitus and muffled hearing: Though I didn’t experience this every time, the fact it happened at all is something that should not be ignored. Sounds 85dB or louder are labeled as hazardous to hearing (click here to learn how loud is too loud). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends no more than eight hours of exposure for an 85dB level of noise. As sound level increases, the permissible exposure time decreases. So, if you happen to be on a plane that has loudness level of 91dB, you can only be exposed to that level for two hours before you run the risk of damaging your hearing. The hallmark signs of overexposure to loud sound include tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and muffled hearing. In most cases, these signs go away but after repeated exposure they may not.
  • Fatigue: Many research studies have shown that noise can have an impact that goes beyond just our ears. Exposure to loud noise in occupational settings (e.g. factory workers, construction, musicians) and even in our day-to-day lives (e.g. living or working near an airport or interstate) can have a negative impact on our short and long-term health.

Being an audiologist, I knew all of these facts and that I could easily alleviate the effects by wearing hearing protection on the plane BUT I kept forgetting to pack it, as I’m sure most people do! So, I made it a point to start carrying an extra set of hearing protection in my travel bag so I would always have it with me. 

There are many kinds of hearing protection you can use. Popular options include:

  • Foam earplugs: they are one-time use, cheap and can often be found anywhere including airport convenience stores.
  • Custom earplugs: there are a variety of custom earplugs that provide great protection and comfort of fit. Click here to learn more about custom earplugs.
  • Headphones/custom earbuds: these devices, with proper fit and insertion, can reduce the noise in the cabin. Just make sure the sound coming from the device is at a safe level. A good rule of thumb: if you cannot easily hear the person next to you, the level is too loud. Click here to learn more about custom earbuds.
  • Noise-canceling headphones: these devices can provide a nice seal to keep unwanted sounds out but also use active noise reduction to cancel out the lower-frequency sounds around you, which is especially beneficial on a plane. Again, remember to keep the sound levels safe and listen carefully!

Find hearing protection that works for you and that can be easily implemented into your flying routine, even if you don’t fly regularly. Your ears will thank you!

By Lindsay Prusick