It’s not fall without football. It’s not football without the shouting, whistling, and stomping of thousands of fans — a cacophony so powerful that it alone can change the course of a game. Many teams consider their fans their extra player, their 12th man.

Being the 12th man is inspiring and energizing, but if you’re not careful, it can damage your hearing.


How Noise Causes Hearing Loss

The hearing damage that occurs during games — that is, in stadiums and sports bars — is called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). If a sound is loud enough, it actually damages cells in your inner ear called hair cells. These cells translate sound into signals your brain can interpret, and it’s nearly impossible for your body to repair them once they’re damaged. The loss is subtle, though; over time, you start missing the s, f, sh, ch, h, and soft c sounds.


When Noise Causes Hearing Loss

A decibel (dB) is a measurement of sound intensity. For comparison:

  • Conversation = 60 dB
  • Vacuum cleaner = 70 dB
  • Lawn mower = 91 dB
  • Rock concert = 112 dB

Somewhere between the noise of a vacuum cleaner and a lawn mower, hearing damage occurs (specifically, at 85 dB or louder). But it’s more complicated than that. For example, at 85 dB, hearing damage occurs after eight hours of exposure; at 91 dB — only 6 dB louder — damage occurs after 2 hours.

The Fan Factor

Little earthquakes
On average, the stadium noise during an NFL game is in the mid-90-dB range. That’s like standing next to an especially loud lawn mower for 3 ½ hours. That doesn’t take into account the noise spikes, however. In 2014 Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, reached 142.2 dB to break the world record for stadium noise. This was only a year after Seattle’s CenturyLink Field had broken the record with 137.6 dB, a roar so powerful it was detected as a minor earthquake by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

Big ups
Hitting your favorite sports bar to catch the game instead? You’re still at risk. A team of audiologists hit its local sports bars during the playoffs and discovered the average noise level was a sensible 70 dB, but during touchdowns and big plays, it hit almost 112 dB — the same noise output of a chain saw.


Get Game-Day Ready

So what’s a fan to do? Here are some tips to make sure you’re not stuck throwing a hearing Hail Mary during the game.

Take a time out
It’s not just the decibels that are dangerous; length of noise exposure is a key component of hearing damage. If you’re in a stadium, from time to time, hit the snack bar or merch table, or wander the stadium for a few minutes. If you’re at a sports bar, head outside for a few minutes, or find a quiet(er) corner.

Use hearing protection
The best offense is a good defense — in this case, hearing protection. Check the noise-reduction rating (NRR) to make sure your choice works for your situation. Typically, the higher the number, the better the protection.

Disposable earplugs. You’ll be the MVP when you bring a bag of earplugs to hand out to friends! Inexpensive and easy to use, these foam plugs should be discarded after each use.

Reusable earplugs. Season just starting? Might want to spend just a tad more and get reusable earplugs. Usually a soft silicone, they can be easily cleaned and reused. You can even get them with a cord so that if they fall out, you don’t lose them.

Custom earplugs. You can get these for general noise or as musicians’ earplugs. You can only get these through a hearing care professional, so they cost a bit more, but they are highly efficient because they are custom built based on a mold of your ear.

Musicians’ earplugs. Noncustom musicians’ earplugs are built to let in good sounds, like your friends’ banter, but keep out bad sounds, like the hearing-damaging sound swells during big plays. They seldom, if ever, come in a disposable option, but there are plenty of reusable brands to choose from.

Earmuffs. These fit completely over the ear. Soft, padded cups are ideal for air circulation, and they’re available in foldable, easy-to-carry styles. These are recommended for young children because they’re safer and easier to use.

Combination. For added protection, use both earplugs and earmuffs.

Want the home-field advantage? Contact us to schedule a hearing-protection consultation!

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Loud Noise Dangers. Accessed May 16, 2018. Guinness World Records. Seattle Seahawks Fans ‘Cause Minor Earthquake’ With World Record Crowd Roar. Accessed May 16, 2018. Oticon. Raising the Bar on Noise. Accessed May 16, 2018.