I know how lucky I am to have habituated to the sound of my Tinnitus.
It could all change so quickly.
I know that I have to wear earplugs in noisy environments, and usually I do.
But I always feel self-conscious. For reasons I can’t explain, I struggle to wear earplugs out in public. I’m constantly aware of the social stigma around wearing earplugs (and hearing aids).
It bothers me that I feel this way. I just never thought to explore why, until now.
(If you just want a recommendation for a great set of earplugs, scroll to the bottom.)
Alone in a room full of people:
My Tinnitus is caused by Meniere’s disease, and my Meniere’s has changed somewhat over the years.
I have a much more difficult time in noisy environments than I used to. I often find myself struggling to follow conversations in restaurants and other loud places. It’s not that I can’t hear, it’s just harder to focus on the conversation.
The constant noise overwhelms my brain and I always leave with a blaring Tinnitus spike.
Recently, my oldest friend in the world got married, and my wife and I flew in for the wedding. It was a lot of fun. It was also incredibly loud.
It felt like I was in the front row at a concert. It was that loud. Part of the problem was that my table was right next to the PA system and the live band. The trumpeter was only five feet away from me, playing his heart out.
I knew right away I was in trouble.
Luckily, I had brought my musicians earplugs with me, but I was embarrassed to put them in. I was sitting with friends that I hadn’t seen since graduating high school over ten years ago. I kept feeling the need to explain.
In hindsight, no one cared at all. Most people probably didn’t even notice. The alcohol was flowing.
But at the time, it was all I could think about. I kept asking Megan if she thought people could see them. I’m ashamed to admit this to you.
I constantly preach the importance of wearing earplugs. I want to lead by example. But it’s really a struggle for me.
The Stigma: “It’s not cool to wear earplugs”
If you think about it, the social stigma doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. There’s no clear reason that I should feel embarrassed to wear earplugs. I also wear glasses and have for most of my life. Without them I’m basically blind. But I never think twice about wearing glasses.
So where does the stigma come from? I think there are probably several factors at play.
The most obvious explanation is that hearing loss is often connected with old age. And no one wants to feel old. Or worse, to be seen as such by others.
But that doesn’t necessarily explain it for me. I’m only 29 years old. So maybe it’s more about feeling singled out or different. Not many young people wear earplugs or hearing aids. Even fewer want to stick out like a sore thumb from their peers. This certainly rings more true for me.
When I wear earplugs, I sometimes feel like an outsider. I get nervous that everyone is looking at me, judging me as “different.” I also know how ridiculous that sounds, and that it’s not actually true. No one ever cares. So why does it feel like they do?
Well vanity probably plays a role as well, at least it does for me. Earplugs aren’t exactly fashionable, and as hard as I try to not care what people think of me, I do care. And I like to be fashionable. I freely admit that I make an effort to look good. Okay, maybe it’s not much of an effort. But I at least try to dress myself well. Most people do. For better or worse, most of us don’t intentionally choose to wear ugly outfits, or mismatched clothing.
I think this brings us closer to the truth. Because the feeling I get from wearing ridiculous clothes is similar to the way I feel when I wear earplugs.
I hate that I feel this way.
Erasing the stigma once and for all:
My first argument against the stigma, especially when it comes to wearing earplugs at concerts, is that the musicians wear earplugs. If the musician is content to wear earplugs, why on earth should any of us feel self-conscious wearing earplugs at their show? We shouldn’t.
Musicians value their hearing as much as we do and know that not wearing them will cause irreversible damage.
But let’s put aside our hearing for a moment and consider vanity. Most Earplugs aren’t considered fashionable. But then again, fashion is entirely subjective. Fashion trends change all the time. If the stigma stems from vanity, we can design better looking earplugs that people actually want to wear. Some companies are already starting to do this.
And we can also encourage more people to wear earplugs, more of the time. Not to make the rest of us feel better, but because it’s needed. Preventable noise-induced hearing loss and Tinnitus are reaching epidemic proportions, especially among teens. It’s an insidious problem.
Sustained noise exposure at 85 decibels – the volume of heavy city traffic – or louder can cause permanent damage, but we won’t realize it as it’s happening because we don’t experience it as pain until it gets to 125 decibels – the volume of a loud concert. Also, our perception of sound is exponential. A pain-inducing 125 decibel sound is going to seem 16 times louder than the 85 decibel sound where damage starts to occur. That’s a huge range!
But if everyone who needed to wear earplugs actually wore earplugs, no one would ever feel singled out. Because we would all be wearing earplugs together, not just those of us who need them the most.
The bottom line: what kind of earplugs should you get?
The best earplugs are always going to be the ones that you actually wear. But that’s not really practical advice. So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
There are several different kinds of earplugs, but ultimately there are two types: standard earplugs, where the goal is to block out as much sound as possible, and musician’s earplugs, which lower the volume without muffling the sound or distorting the quality.
The kind you should get depends on your individual needs. Some people will want to block out as much noise as possible, and should go with standard earplugs. But if you still want to clearly hear everything around you, just at a safer volume, musician’s earplugs are your best bet.
Standard earplugs can be purchased off the shelf or custom molded to your ears.They are made from a wide variety of materials and come in different shapes and sizes. Some are disposable, some reusable.
I recommend the Mack’s Pillow Soft Silicone earplugs. I find them much more comfortable than traditional foam earplugs.
Other noteworthy brands:
- Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs
- 3M E-A-Rsoft FX Bell Shaped Earplugs
- Howard Leight Earplugs by Honeywell
Can be purchased off the shelf at varying price points or custom molded to your ears, which is obviously much more expensive.
I recommend Eargasm High Fidelity Earplugs as well as the ETY ER-20 Plugs from Etymotic Research, which work well and only cost $12.95. (Etymotic also makes a slightly more expensive, but much more discreet variation ($19.95).
Other worthwhile brands:
Earplugs for airplanes (BONUS RECOMMENDATION):
Earplanes aren’t exactly earplugs in the traditional sense, because they don’t block out noise. But they do prevent your ears from popping on plane rides and deserve a place in your Meniere’s toolkit!
I hope you all grab a pair of earplugs and start taking steps to protect your hearing! As for me, I plan to start testing other brands of earplugs and will report back soon.
In the meantime, if you have a great recommendation for earplugs, leave a comment below!