The answer is yes, but there are several factors to consider. We are born with about 16,000 hair cells within our inner ear or cochlea. These hair cells convert mechanical energy into electrical energy, which translates sounds into meaning. Up to 30% to 50% of these hair cells can be damaged or destroyed before changes in our hearing can be measured by a hearing test. By the time hearing loss is noticed, many hair cells have been destroyed and cannot be repaired.
Think of the hair cells in our cochlea as money in the bank. We are all given the gift of 16,000, but we pay interest and have unforeseen expenses as we age.
Even when we are infants, being exposed to loud noises will deplete our bank of cochlear hair cells. Once our account balance decreases, there is no way to restore it. Once the hair cells are gone, they are gone.
But many infants and children have an additional problem called hyperacusis, or a hypersensitivity to loud sounds. Tolerance to loud sounds can be a challenge that is difficult to overcome.
Why do children hold their ears when there are loud sounds?
Up to 20% of children can experience some level of hyperacusis. It is common to see children hold their hands over their ears.
Some children experience mild distress with loud sounds, others become inconsolable and have true panic attacks, which can last for a long time.
Sensitivity to loud sounds seems to be more prevalent among children with developmental disabilities including the autistic spectrum disorder, but it also can occur in children without any disabilities.
Some of the most common troublesome loud sounds include:
- Vacuum cleaners or floor cleaners
- Other children screaming or playing
- Hand or hair dryers
- Emergency sirens or alarms
- Loud music such as at concerts
To place the levels of noises in perspective, permanent hearing loss may happen only over 110 to 120 decibels. These include types of noises such as:
Fireworks within 3 feet, guns, jet engines (140 to 150 decibels)
- Jet plane, siren, jackhammer ( 120 to 130 decibels)
- Loud music, chain saws, radio-controlled airplanes (110 to 120 decibels)
Examples of noises that can cause hearing loss include:
- Loud appliances, such as hair dryers, food processors, or blenders
- Traffic or subway noise
- Power tools or equipment, such as leaf blowers and lawn mowers
- Concerts, sporting events, or movie theaters
- Snowmobiles, go-karts, or radio-controlled airplanes
- Music from smartphones and personal listening devices with the volume turned up too high
What is hyperacusis in children?
For children to be exposed to potentially loud and harmful sounds, there has to be a balance drawn between what is safe in the short-term and what the child is willing to tolerate. Hyperacusis in children may merely be the child’s natural protective response to loud noises.
There are different mechanisms behind hyperacusis. As the auditory system matures, the child normally will have improved sound intensity discrimination.
There is an important part of our brain development, which allows for sensory gating. Sensory gating means that we can inhibit distracting or unwanted auditory information, therefore tolerating loud noises or music at a concert better as we get older.
In addition, as children get older their frontal cortex develops, leading to a decreased sensitivity and susceptibility to interference from environmental stimuli.
Children use non-auditory pathways in perceiving loud noises from the limbic system and the amygdala, hence some children have an emotional response to loud sounds. That is why some children have a “fight or flight” or panic response to loud sounds.
Is it safe to bring children to concerts where there is loud music?
The answer is an individual one for parents. The first step is determining whether the noise level may be safe for anyone who attends, adults or children.
The noise in our environment at a music concert is no longer natural and amplified sounds can have both short- and long-term consequences. There are attempts at regulation in industry, business, or the military. In the arena of public entertainment, there are no regulations, and even if there were there would be no way to enforce the rules.
But even in the same music concert there will be safer areas than others. Education and awareness of the specific environment can go a long way in being able to enjoy music at a concert. The analogy is it is fine to be out in the sun for reasonable lengths of time, but it is never advised for us to stare directly at the sun.
Our general auditory experience depends on what is comfortable to most listeners. Young children must be taught to avoid extended periods of loudness, and if possible, to allow the inner ear to take breaks of 20 minutes or longer.
There are a wide range of hearing protective devices that can ameliorate loud noise exposure, yet still allow for full enjoyment of the music at a concert. Some children find this to be not only helpful but ask for it. These hearing protective devices change the dynamic.
Excellent quality earplugs made of expanding foam can provide sound attenuation of 25 or 30 decibels. Earmuff hearing protectors can exceed 30 decibels of protection. The effect is additive if both are worn. Some children find these solutions to offer relief from the anxiety of the loud noises.
Yes, you can take your young child to a music concert, as long as you take precautions to protect their hearing. Be prepared to leave if your child cannot handle the noise levels.
All children can be fearful of loud sounds, eliciting what is known as hyperacusis.
Hyperacusis can occur in all children, but is more common in those with developmental delay such as autism spectrum disorder.
Overcoming hyperacusis in children may take time, but there are behavioral steps that can be taken to alleviate potential stress and panic in children who may be exposed to loud noises.
Hearing protection and vigilance in choosing the right location and potential amount of loud noise exposure is essential in hearing protection for both adults and children.
Many children will need guidance as to how to manage or cope with loud noises and to use hearing protection wisely.
Adults and children often need guidance to avoid potentially dangerous loud noise and practice taking long enough breaks from loud noises for their inner ears to recover.
Boston Children’s. Hyperacusis.
University of Rochester. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss in Children.
Myne, S., Kennedy, V. (2018). Hyperacusis in children: A clinical profile. International journal of pediatric otorhinolaryngology.