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Happy 4th! How to keep small ears safe during the loudest holiday

Andrea Estefania holds Mateo, 2, while they watch the fireworks show on Tuesday, July 4, 2023 during Fair St. Louis at the Gateway Arch.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrea Estefania holds Mateo, 2, while they watch the fireworks show on Tuesday, July 4, 2023 during Fair St. Louis at the Gateway Arch.

Fireworks are a summer tradition on the Fourth of July. But health experts say parents should protect their children’s ears from damage that can come from loud booms.

Depending on how close one is to the blasts and how powerful the explosions are, fireworks can be as loud as 150 decibels. That’s as loud as a jet plane taking off or a close-range gunshot.

Exposure to those kinds of loud noises can cause hearing loss and other health issues for people of all ages, said Adrienne Childers, a pediatric otolaryngology professor at St. Louis University School of Medicine. But young kids can can be especially susceptible.

“In some small children, because their ear canals are smaller, it could be more impactful if there's a loud noise near them,” said Childers, who also works at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. “But I think in general, I would always recommend that everybody use hearing protection.”

Childers recommends that both children and adults wear ear protection when they’re in close range of fireworks. For babies, that means earmuff-style protectors that go over the top of the ear. For older kids and adults, in-ear plugs are ideal, since they fit snugly into a person’s ear canal.

(Earplugs can’t always fit in a child-size ear, she said. Babies also like to put them in their mouth.)

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a professional group of audiologist pathologists and other professionals, sounds at around 70 decibels are generally safe to listen to for long periods. Anything louder can pose a risk. The louder and closer something is, the greater the likelihood of permanent hearing damage.

Childers recommends thinking ahead about hearing safety since small kids can’t always communicate or realize that loud sounds are damaging. Blocking or dampening loud booms can also keep very young kids from getting scared.

“The thing with hearing is once you lose it, you cannot get it back,” she said. “And so I think always being protective and proactive is going to be your best bet.”

Distance can also help. Staying at least 50 meters, or around half a football field, from where fireworks are set off will mean people have much smaller chances of losing their hearing (or their fingers).

“I think that the farther away you get, the better obviously, because the sound will dissipate over distance,” Childers said. “So when you're a spectator at these larger shows, because there is that safety barrier, you're probably far enough away. However, we would still generally recommend using hearing protection for children.”

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.