Feb. 04, 2024
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These plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free cylinder. Whether you roll plugs with thumb and fingers or across your palm doesn’t matter. What’s critical is the final result—a smooth tube thin enough so that about half the length will fit easily into your ear canal. Some individuals, especially women with small ear canals, have difficulty rolling typical plugs small enough to make them fit. A few manufacturers now offer a small size expandable plug.
Pre-molded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are available in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals.
A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person may need a different size plug for each ear. The plugs should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable. This takes trial and error of the various sizes. Directions for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly depending on how many flanges they have and how the tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until you have sealed the ear canal.
Advantages of pre-molded plugs are that they are relatively inexpensive, reusable, washable, convenient to carry, and come in a variety of sizes. Nearly everyone can find a plug that will be comfortable and effective. In dirty or dusty environments, you don’t need to handle or roll the tips.
Canal caps often resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic or metal band. The earplug tips of a canal cap may be a formable or pre-molded material. Some have headbands that can be worn over the head, behind the neck or under the chin. Newer models have jointed bands increasing the ability to properly seal the earplug.
The main advantage canal caps offer is convenience. When it’s quiet, employees can leave the band hanging around their necks. They can quickly insert the plug tips when hazardous noise starts again. Some people find the pressure from the bands uncomfortable. Not all canal caps have tips that adequately block all types of noise. Generally, the canal caps tips that resemble stand-alone earplugs seem to block the most noise.
Earmuffs come in many models designed to fit most people. They work to block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise. Some muffs also include electronic components to help users communicate or to block impulsive noises.
Workers who have heavy beards or sideburns or who wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection from earmuffs. The hair and the temples of the glasses break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the ear. For these workers, earplugs are best. Other potential drawbacks of earmuffs are that some people feel they can be hot and heavy in some environments.
Manufacturers are receptive to comments from hearing protection users. This has led to the development of new devices that are hybrids of the traditional types of hearing protectors. (Visit NIOSH searchable compendium of hearing protectors) Because many people like the comfort of foam plugs, but don’t want to roll them in dirty environments, a plug is now available that is essentially a foam tip on a stem. You insert this plug much like a pre-molded plug without rolling the foam.
Scientists are developing earmuffs using high-tech materials to reduce weight and bulk, but still effectively block noise. On the horizon may be earplugs with built in two-way communication capability.
Still, the best hearing protector is the one that is comfortable and convenient and that you will wear every time you are in an environment with hazardous noise.
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The best ways to protect your hearing are to avoid exposure to loud sounds, move away from the noise, or turn down the volume. When these options aren’t possible, hearing protectors—earplugs or protective earmuffs—can help. Hearing protectors are wearable devices that can lower the intensity of sound that enters your ears.
Loud sounds can damage sensitive structures in your inner ear, causing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and tinnitus (ringing, roaring, or buzzing in the ears). The louder the sound, the faster it can damage your hearing.
NIHL is a significant health problem for U.S. youth and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), self-reported hearing tests show that about one in seven U.S. teens and nearly one in four U.S. adults (ages 20 to 69) have features suggestive of NIHL in one or both ears.
Hearing damage can happen instantly. The sound of a gunshot at close range, for example, can cause immediate and permanent damage. Other types of very loud sounds can cause hearing loss in less than 15 minutes. Exposure to repetitive loud noise—from machinery at a worksite, for example—may result in hearing loss over time.
Sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds at or below 70 A-weighted decibels (dBA) are generally safe. A single very loud noise or long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dBA can cause hearing loss. Here are average decibel ratings for a few familiar sounds:
The Sound Level Meter app developed for iOS devices by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is one example of a free decibel meter app that can help you evaluate sound risks in your environment.
If you anticipate being in a loud setting or participating in a noisy activity, wear earplugs or protective earmuffs to safeguard your hearing. Hearing protectors are recommended for these settings and activities:
Make it a habit to wear hearing protectors when you expect to be in a loud setting, and keep earplugs or protective earmuffs handy for unexpected loud noises. If loud noise happens suddenly or unexpectedly, cover your ears with your hands and move away from the noise, if possible.
Earplugs and protective earmuffs are available from retail stores or online. Examples include formable foam earplugs, pre-molded earplugs, canal caps, and safety earmuffs. “Musician earplugs” are custom-made earplug molds intended to protect hearing while also allowing as much natural sound as possible to safely enter the ear. Choose a type of hearing protector that is comfortable and easy for you to use, so that you will use it consistently and correctly.
Hearing protectors don’t block all sound. Most hearing protectors have a noise reduction rating (NRR). In general, the higher the NRR, the more sound is blocked (if you are wearing the device correctly). Choose hearing protectors that allow you to communicate well in a noisy environment, so that you don’t have to remove them during conversation. Even briefly removing your hearing protectors in a very loud environment puts your hearing at risk.
Consult a hearing health professional if you need help selecting hearing protection, or for information about custom-made earplugs.
Earplugs are inexpensive devices placed directly into your ear canal. Earplugs come in various sizes, but can be hard to find in sizes that fit children. Earplugs may have cords attached to help you keep track of them. Specialty earplugs, including earplugs that are custom-molded to your ears, are also available.
Formable foam earplugs
Pre-molded, high-fidelity earplugs
How to use formable foam earplugs:
How to use pre-molded earplugs:
How to use canal caps:
Proper fit is important for successful hearing protection. After inserting earplugs, your voice should sound different to you—possibly louder and/or muffled. The earplugs should feel comfortable and secure in your ears. Ask a friend or use a mirror to check positioning. You may need to practice for a comfortable, secure fit. Wearing earplugs shouldn’t be painful. Never force earplugs into your ears. If you can’t secure a comfortable fit, consider using protective earmuffs instead.
Protective earmuffs are easy-to-use, padded plastic and foam cups joined by an adjustable headband. (They aren’t the soft earmuffs worn for warmth.) They reduce noise by completely covering both ears. Sizes for adults and children are available. Earmuffs are easier than earplugs to use correctly, especially for young children.
Earmuffs might not work as well for people who wear glasses because the arms of the glasses can create gaps between the earmuff cushion and the skull. If you wear glasses, check to make sure the earmuffs seal properly. Hairstyles, hats, and facial hair can create gaps that make protective earmuffs less effective.
How to use protective earmuffs:
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports research on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of NIHL. The NIDCD also supports research to increase accessible, affordable hearing health care.
The NIDCD maintains a directory of organizations that provide information on the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language.
For more information, contact us at:
NIDCD Information Clearinghouse
1 Communication Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20892-3456
Toll-free voice: (800) 241-1044
Toll-free TTY: (800) 241-1055
NIH Pub. No. 20-DC-8122
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