Picture of people at the moviesWho doesn’t enjoy going to the movies! It can turn an ordinary film into an experience. You smell buttery popcorn as you enter the theater.

You enjoy laughing with friends or grandkids as you anticipate the main feature. And then afterward, everyone weighs in on the performance the whole ride home.

The social aspect of movie-going is fantastic for your health and wellbeing. But can going to the movies also be bad for your health?

The Unseen Danger Lurking in Theaters

We’re not going to talk about the germs on the seats and those sticky floors. You’re already acutely aware of those. Instead, let’s examine something that many of us consider harmless — sound.

What could be dangerous about sound?

In fact, you like sound. You like to engage in conversations. You love to listen to the birds singing on a beautiful day. You enjoy music. Maybe you even like singing. You couldn’t do that without sound.

But when does sound become dangerous? It becomes dangerous when it’s too loud.

In the case of theaters, sound is often just that.

How Loud Is Too Loud?

Prolonged exposure (over 15 minutes) to anything over 80 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. For reference, people normally speak at about 60 decibels. A refrigerator hums at about 45 decibels. Even when turning your television up to full volume or running the vacuum, that’s only around 70 decibels. Unless you have a home theater sound system, it’s still below damaging levels.

Over 100 can cause permanent damage in less than 15 minutes. Anything over 110 can cause nearly immediate and permanent damage.

How Loud Are Theaters?

Studies have shown that on average the sound in a movie theater is around 94 decibels. Being an average, this means that some theaters may be up over 100. Moviegoers are exposing themselves to as many as 3 hours of non-stop sound above the safe level.

How Sound Damages Hearing

In your inner ear, you have little hairs that vibrate with sounds that your outer ear takes in. The brain interprets the frequency of the vibration as different sounds. That’s why you can tell the difference between a baby’s cry and a motorcycle revving. When exposed to very loud sound, these hairs vibrate too fast. They bend and break as they become fewer and fewer.

Sadly, these hair cells can’t heal and don’t grow back.

How Those with Hearing Loss Experience Loud Noise

10 million adults under 70 in the U.S. have hearing loss. Once someone reaches 70, the chances of having hearing loss climb to nearly 40 million people.

The sounds that people with perfect hearing hear aren’t just a single sound. They are an orchestra of sounds at various frequencies.

Hearing loss typically happens in stages. High-frequency hearing is the first to go. As they lose high-frequency, they only hear part of the sound.

This can make some loud sounds seem even louder and more annoying because they lack the beautiful complexity that healthy ears normally appreciate and take for granted.

What Can You Do Once the Damage Is Done

Chances are that you’ve seen many movies at the theater. Don’t beat yourself up. You can’t go back and undo it. What you can do is see an audiologist to get your hearing tested. They can discuss prevention of further damage and treatment options if you’re already experiencing discomfort from loud noises.

Remember, everything in moderation. Don’t sit in a theater if it hurts your ears. And you may want to skip the action movies in the theater. They’re always louder. Wait until those come out on DVD and enjoy them with those you love in the comfort of your own home.