One in 10 Australians are exposing themselves to harmful levels of noise through their earphones and headphones, cranking up the volume to the point they're exceeding the noise limit allowed in workplaces.
A study by researchers at National Acoustic Laboratories at Macquarie University found 10 per cent of 3578 participants exceeded the equivalent of the workplace exposure standard for noise - 85 decibels over eight hours - just from their personal listening devices (PLD), including smartphones and tablets.
"High-risk users, who listened at high volumes for long durations, in all age groups were more likely to report hearing difficulties, particularly in relation to speech and conversation, compared with those with lower levels of risk," said lead author Dr Megan Gilliver.
"These results suggest a potential relationship between PLD use and speech-in-noise hearing difficulties, indicating that PLD users need to be aware that their listening habits could be impacting their ability to hear in other settings."
The researchers divided the participants into three groups - low, high, and very high risk - depending on how long they listened to their PLDs and at what volume, in relation to the workplace exposure standard.
They found the higher risk groups were likely to be younger and include slightly more females.
The very high risk group on average listened to their devices at 84 per cent of the maximum volume, compared to those in the low risk group, who on average listened at 49 per cent.
The very high risk group also cranked up the volume to 90 per cent in noisy environments such as a busy gym.
Dr Gilliver urged Australians to keep the volume to below 80 per cent of full volume and limit the listening time to no more than 1.5 hours per day.
Both volume and duration play a role in causing hearing damage - the higher the level of sound and the longer the exposure, the more likely damage will occur.
"If you increase the sound from 85 to 88 decibels, which is only a three decibel jump, you've actually halved the amount of time you're allowed to be exposed," she said.
"If you jump from 85 to 100 decibels, you're down to 15 minutes of recommended exposure, so it's an exponential curve."
The study, published in Seminars in Hearing, also found 41 per cent of 4185 participants felt they suffered some hearing loss, with 20 per cent reporting difficulties with speech in noise.
"For 18 to 35-year-olds, higher-risk status was associated with a greater proportion of these self-reported hearing difficulties, including perceived poorer speech perception," she said.
Co-author Dr Elizabeth Beach, also from NAL, encouraged Australians to take advantage of affordable technology that could reduce the need to turn up the sound, such as in-ear earphones or noise-cancelling headphones.
"More than a quarter of participants' overall listening time was undertaken using the default ear buds or headphones that came with their device," she said.
"Only a small percentage of listening time, around 7.5 per cent, was undertaken with noise-cancelling devices, meaning that only a small number of us are taking advantage of newer technology that cuts out background sound and can really help with reducing overall exposure."
One in six Australians will suffer hearing loss in their lives, according to the NAL. Hearing loss is predicted to rise to one in four by 2050.
Apart from hearing loss, noise injury can also cause tinnitus, which is characterised by ringing, buzzing or even roaring noises in the ears or head. While the condition can subside, for some, it is permanent.