Protecting children’s hearing as they grow

Corrine Langill, RN, BScN   CHEO

Manager, Health Promotion and Injury Prevention 

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario

What causes children and youth to lose hearing?  Some children are born with hearing problems that aren't found until later.  And younger children can lose some hearing when fluid builds up in the tubes behind the eardrum (eustachian tubes).  This can happen when children have recurring ear infections.  In this case, the hearing loss is temporary, or reversible.  Sometimes, children need surgery to place small tubes under the ear drum, to reduce the fluid and protect the ear drum from damage.

Things are different with older children and youth.  Their hearing is more likely to be damaged by noise.  Loud sounds hit the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, battering them until they are destroyed.  Unfortunately, we can't reverse this damage.  But we can prevent it.  In fact, we can prevent half of all hearing loss.

How much noise causes hearing loss? 

Ever noticed ringing in your ears after a loud concert?  That's the sound of damage, though it may be just temporary.

There are a few things at work here: how loud the sound is, how long, and how often you listen to it.  For example, listening to very loud music at 100 decibels for 15 minutes can cause some hearing loss.  And so can listening to sound at 95 decibels for one hour.  Or sometimes a brief but intense sound, like an explosion, can cause hearing loss. 

Ear buds are a real problem.  They deliver sound right into the ear canal, sometimes up to 120 decibels (the sound of a jet engine!).  And youth use them almost every day.

Protecting hearing: turning down the volume

There are many ways to lower the chance that children and youth will damage their hearing.

1. Lower the volume on your child or teen's devices:

  • iOS-reset the maximum volume on smartphones
  • Check other devices to see if it's possible to set a maximum volume

2. See if your teen will use over ear headphones instead of earbuds.  Many youth prefer these, as the sound quality is better, so they can listen to music at a lower volume. 

3. Try to set time limits on listening to loud music.

4. Encourage teens to take short listening breaks.

5. Encourage youth to use ear plugs for some live concerts or sporting events. 

6. Don't buy ear buds that are worn deep inside the ear canal (deep insert ear buds).

Musicians may need to take further steps to protect hearing.  Check the website at the end of the article for more information.

Children and youth may have hearing loss or damage if they:

  • Notice ringing or a feeling of numbness in the ear.
  • Say 'huh?' or 'what?' a lot.
  • Can't hear what you say unless they are facing you.
  • Have trouble hearing or paying attention in noisy places.
  • Talk loudly or turn up the volume on the radio or TV so that it bothers others.
  • Really focus on your mouth to understand what you're saying.
  • Start having trouble in school.  Teachers may also notice problems with listening or hearing.

If your child or teen is having trouble hearing, have their hearing tested.  Your family doctor can make a referral to a clinic that does hearing tests (audiology clinic).  This way, the test will be covered by your Ontario health card.  It can be tricky to test hearing in children under 6 years - CHEO's audiology clinic is probably best suited to test hearing in young children.

Other options for hearing tests:

Students may have access to hearing tests through school, if their hearing has been causing problems with learning.  Check with school staff.

University of Ottawa Interprofessional Rehabilitation Clinic

Hearing tests provided by audiology students, $50 for a session.

613-562-5800 x 8037 

Did you know?

  • There are no standards that control noise levels for ear buds.
  • Middle ear infections are more common in children who:
  • Were not breastfed as babies
  • Live with smokers
  • Live in crowded conditions
  • Attend day care

How loud is it?

The loudness of sound is measured in decibels (dB).   As sounds get louder, people should listen for shorter periods of time. 

  • A quiet office = 45 decibels
  • Talking with someone = 65 decibels
  • Practicing on a piano = 80 decibels
  • Loud radio 85 decibels
  • Live rock band = 135 decibels

 Helpful websites


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