COVID-19, coronavirus, and hearing

How is COVID-19 (coronavirus) affecting our hearing? In the pandemic, many of us are learning how to study, work, live, and relax in the same space—often at the same time. We’re dealing with a host of new challenges. We have altered routines and workflows that now include frequent videoconferencing (and an increased risk of Zoom-bombing).

In our “new normal,” most of us are now keenly aware of how disruptive noise is in our “office space”. (To be fair, our old office space was noisy too, but we had gotten used to its particular rhythm and cadence. So, we stopped noticing it over time.) To compensate, we’re turning to headphones and earbuds. We’re asking our kids (or our roommates) to please wait just 30 more minutes before making that snack in the kitchen. And, every day, we face the temptation to turn up the volume to drown out the background noise. We know this isn’t good for our ears, but … “desperate times.”

Dealing with our less-than-ideal sound environment could be just another pandemic pain point. But I see a silver-lining opportunity to address our hearing wellness. It’s our chance to become more conscious of the noise level around us. We can be more attuned to how it affects our mood and stress level. We can be more educated about technology that helps us address it. And we can be more willing to take action to safeguard our hearing and our overall health and wellness.

Working from home during COVID-19: how noisy is it?

These days, you can quickly assess the noise level in any environment using your smartphone. With the CDC, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides a free Sound Level Meter App for iPhones. (Sound Meter & Noise Detector is a good alternative for Android users.) You can get professional-grade results by attaching an external microphone, but using your phone’s built-in microphone produces a reliable measure.

The CDC recommends noise levels of 70 dBA or less as safe. As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) puts it, “You can listen to sounds at 70 dBA or lower for as long as you want.” But prolonged exposure to noisier environments causes eventual hearing damage and hearing loss. That’s why the CDC and OSHA set “noise dose” limits on work environments with 85 dBA or above.

A chart showing the decibel scale relative to common sounds and noises.
Source: OSHA.gov

Coronavirus background noise: what can I do about it?

Optimizing the sound environment for our “home office” comes down to three key ingredients: headphones, microphones, and soundproofing. If that list sounds like we’re getting ready to produce the next hit song, it’s because the technology once reserved for professional sound engineers has made its way to our everyday lives. Ready or not, we all work and live in spaces that sometimes need to function like a sound booth or a video production studio. Fortunately, setting up our rooms for good sound is not as complicated as it used to be.

Hearing better with headphones

Perhaps the most important feature for hearing safely is noise cancellation. Noise cancelling headphones or earbuds automatically identify and “cancel” background noise using sophisticated technology. The bottom line: you don’t have to turn up the volume to drown out the background noise. Good headphones or earbuds isolate background noise and focus on the sound you want to hear, safely.

But what volume level is safe for your headphones? The Health app in iPhones provides a simple and easy-to-understand answer. The section is called “Headphone Audio Levels.” This built-in feature measures loudness in decibels, tells you how long you listened at that level, and tracks behavior over time. The app says it “works best with Apple or Beats headphones. But audio played through other headphones or speakers connected via wire can be estimated based on the volume of your device.” Microsoft and Google offer similar apps to help measure the decibel level of speakers, headphones and earbuds.

If you don’t want to use an app, there are some practical guidelines. Many doctors recommend the 60/60 rule. Keep volume at 60% or less for less than 60 minutes before a long break of an hour or more. Dr. Greta Stamper, a Mayo Clinic audiologist, says that the “general rule of thumb is, if you have headphones [or earbuds]…in your ears, and you’re about arm’s length away from a person, and you can’t understand them without really having to speak at a raised voice, it’s too loud.”

Helping others hear better with microphones

Most laptops come with a built-in microphone that adequately captures speaking sound without picking up too much background noise. So, it’s best to use headphones or earbuds to listen and your laptop’s mic to capture sound. However, some plug-in (“wired”) headphones come with a built-in microphone that can be troublesome. When you’re not speaking, the mic can misinterpret background noise as a soft voice and actually increases volume to compensate. That means your listeners hear the amplified sound of your refrigerator hum, your air conditioner, or kids playing in the next room. That’s why most online conferencing “rules” include muting your microphone when you’re not speaking. If you do a lot of online conferencing, you could investigate dedicated microphones that are better at identifying background noise. You might also consider a “gaming headset,” specifically built to reduce background noise and make ongoing conversation easier.

Soundproofing for healthy hearing at home (or office)

Technology will help improve the sound quality of our online conferencing, but the room itself can be optimized for sound. Consider a rug to cover hardwood floors. Sound baffling panels can be artfully arranged along hard-surface walls. It also might be time to invest in ultra-quiet appliances, especially space heaters or fans that can be the major culprits behind disruptive background noise.

Take it forward

Reducing noise levels is a practical concern amid COVID-19 work-from-home conditions. But these same best practices will work at the office, too. In fact, it’s likely that we’ll see an increased use of online conferencing as we cautiously return to office buildings and continue to limit our travel. Investments in good technology, and even a little sound baffling for the office walls, can pay long-term dividends. Busy offices might even take a cue from innovative classrooms that use fun sound monitors to help raise awareness (and decrease levels) of shared-space noise.

We’re learning many lessons from our pandemic experience. I hope that our awareness of noise environments and solutions for hearing better and hearing safely will stay with us well into the future. Not only will we have better sound quality and communication in our online conferencing, we’ll also better protect our hearing health for years to come.

Bill Schiffmiller is the CEO and Founder of Akoio, a company dedicated to providing products and services tailored to the needs of people with hearing loss. A life-long hearing aid user and hearing wellness advocate, Bill was the former Accessibility Advocate for Apple, Inc., and received his Master of Professional Studies degree in Design Management at Pratt Institute.