WHEN it comes to using earplugs to prevent hearing loss, familiarity breeds contentment. A government study to be published later this year has found party-goers may be more willing to protect their ears than thought.
National Acoustic Laboratories, the research arm of government agency Australian Hearing, used internet forums to find more than 50 live music fans, many of whom had previously used unorthodox forms of hearing protection.
''A lot of them had only tried toilet paper stuffed in their ears,'' research psychologist Dr Elizabeth Beach said.
Participants were given a set of filtered earplugs, which reduce volume without jeopardising sound quality, and half were played a simulation of hearing loss, freely available on the website of US company Sensimetrics. Four months later, participants had adapted to how music sounded with earplugs and savoured waking up without ringing in their ears.
They reported they would wear earplugs at festivals, gigs, concerts and nightclubs mostly or sometimes, compared with only rarely before the study.
Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations put an acceptable noise level at 85 decibels (the level of a vacuum cleaner) averaged over eight hours. But party-goers often ''binge listen'', absorbing up to three weeks' noise in five hours.
At a heavy metal concert, where volumes easily surpass 100 decibels, fans have less than 15 minutes before they risk permanent hearing loss. ''Every three decibels you go above [85 decibels] it's a doubling in energy so you halve the time,'' said Jeremy Trotman, of workplace assessment company Noise Management Services.
According to Australian Hearing, about 10 per cent of people experience persistent tinnitus, which audiologist Myriam Westcott defines as ''any sound a person can hear internally that is not present externally''. Tinnitus is almost always a warning sign of hearing loss and the ringing may lead to depression, anxiety attacks and sleep problems. There is no cure.
About 40 per cent of people with tinnitus develop hyperacusis - oversensitivity to certain sounds, which may be painful, Ms Westcott said. ''The tinnitus becomes very reactive to everyday sounds, [and] that can potentially escalate and cause significant problems,'' she said. The Tinnitus Association of Victoria estimates 30 per cent of the 1500 callers to its hotline each year are in their early 20s and frequently attend nightclubs, but leading audiologists believe we are not seeing a tinnitus epidemic.
''Noise damage is all about how long, how loud, how often,'' Ms Westcott said. Clubbers can minimise hearing loss by ensuring their exposure lasts no more than a few years.
Violinist Sophie Di Tempora, 24, said she often left venues that were too loud.
''If you're having that post-gig tinnitus and heady kind of feeling, it really disturbs me and worries me a lot.'' She practises violin with an earplug in her left ear to preserve her capacity for discerning listening.
National Acoustic Laboratories director Dr Harvey Dillon said: ''The best of all worlds is to have lots of active listening experience, but not to have it at such high levels.''
Others take their chances, including Ms Di Tempora's boyfriend, bassist Richard Bradbeer, 25, who has played in rock bands since his teens. ''You think, 'I'll just do this gig, do this rehearsal', but your pattern of behaviour doesn't really change.''