by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady explained,
I have hearing loss and use an amplified phone that displays a warning “HIGH VOLUME – May cause hearing damage!”. I need the volume to be at that decibel level in order to hear. Will having the volume that high cause further hearing damage? Is it better for me to set the volume at a slightly lower level and deal with the acoustical gaps?
Excellent question. I’m in the same boat. Except in my case, not only do I use a high-powered amplified phone, I also use an external in-line amplifier in series with the phone to get much more volume. I’ve measured the output of my phone going into my ears and it is at least 95 dB.
Sounds at this level can indeed damage your ears. So the trade-off is, as you have explained, do you keep the volume loud enough so that you can hear clearly, and in the process damage your ears, or do you turn the volume down to avoid ear damage but end up missing and/or misunderstanding a lot of the conversation?
Here are three strategies you can use.
1. Get yourself a captioned phone, such as the CapTel or the CaptionCall phone. Then you can read on the phone’s screen the words you don’t hear from the other person. This is assuming they are speaking clearly, because if they’re not, the captions will be totally garbled. I find this happens all too often. If the person is speaking clearly, typically I can understand them without reading the screen. It’s when they’re not speaking clearly or have strong accents that I have trouble and unfortunately, the captioned phones have the same trouble. Thus, they don’t really help me in those situations—although sometimes they do catch the odd keyword that I miss and that really does make a difference.
2. Use a binaural headset. One of the advantages of using a binaural headset is that both ears then hear the speech. When you do this, two good things happen. First, with two ears you will understand more of the conversation than you would with one ear alone. Second, with two ears, you can turn the volume down and yet still hear better than you could with just one ear with the volume set higher. Thus, you can help prevent or limit any damage to your ears by using a lower volume. This is the strategy I have been using for several years now. In fact, I never use a phone now without my favorite binaural headset. (You can see the binaural headset and external amplifier I use here.)
Some new hearing aids let you hear in both ears when you hold the phone receiver to one ear. If your hearing aids do this, great! An added benefit of wearing hearing aids is that they compress loud sounds so they don’t damage your hearing like uncompressed amplified sound can.
Another solution is to set your hearing aids to t-coil mode and, if your phone has the appropriate jack—and many amplified phones do—plug in a neckloop or Music links and hear with both ears that way.
3. Limit the time your ears are exposed to loud sounds. Unless the noise is extremely loud such that any length of time being exposed to the sound will cause instant damage to your ears, ear damage (hearing loss) is the product of the volume of the sound times the length of time you expose your ears to it. Here’s how it works. For each 3 dB increase in the volume of the sound over 80 dB, you need to cut your exposure time by half.
Current standards say that you can expose your ears to sounds of 85 dB for eight hours without damage. Using this as your base, then by increasing the volume 3 dB, you would have to limit your sound exposure at that level to four hours if you want to prevent damaging your hearing. If you increase it another 3 dB to 91 dB, you need to limit your sound exposure to half of that, namely two hours. Increasing the sound level by another 3 dB to 94 dB means you need to limit your sound exposure to one hour. By the same token, increasing the volume to 97 dB, means you need to limit your sound exposure to 30 minutes, and so on.
As you can see, theoretically, you will not damage your ears by talking on the phone, even if you have the volume set at 97 dB, if you limit your time on the phone to 30 minutes or less. After that, you need to give your ears a rest from louder sounds so that they can recuperate.
I actually take this to extremes because I so often am helping people on the phone for an hour or two at a time. What I do is I just don’t wear my hearing aids in between phone calls. This means essentially I am deaf and my ears are getting the rest they so sorely need by that time.
Another strategy you can use if you are using a regular phone handset is to switch ears every few minutes if you have a long phone call and give the other ear a rest. This limits the time any given ear is being exposed to the louder sounds.
As you can see, talking on the phone at ear-damaging levels does not have to destroy more of your precious hearing if you know the above tricks and use them to limit noise damage. Even if you couldn’t use these tricks, what is the good of having a phone if you can’t quite understand what people are saying in the first place? I take the view that sometimes you have to accept collateral damage (hearing loss) in order to live your life. You just want to limit all unnecessary collateral damage to the bare minimum and thus preserve as much of your precious hearing as you can for as long as you can.