The Scientist: David A. Sherris, M.D., chair of the department of otolaryngology at the University at Buffalo

The Answer:
If you constantly crank up your iPod, it is entirely possible to get what’s called noise-induced hearing loss. (It’s why people who work construction or at airports wear protective headphones to block out noise and why you should stick earplugs in at rock concerts.)

The basic mechanics go like this: When a single blast of an extremely loud sound, like an explosion, or repetitive sounds, such as factory noise or electric guitar, travel through your ear canal, they beat against your eardrum. The eardrum vibrates, setting off vibrations in the tiny bones in your middle ear, which in turn create waves in the fluid in a deeper structure called the cochlea. These waves move minuscule hairs, which convert sound into electrical impulses that travel to your brain, telling it what you’re hearing. Big waves can sometimes damage these tiny hairs—and they never grow back.

To put it in perspective, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or over 85 decibles can cause hearing loss. An mp3 player at max volume tops out over 100 decibles. Noise-induced hearing loss is unlikely to lead to true deafness, but it can cause permanent damage.

If you start to have a hard time hearing conversations in crowds or detecting higher pitches, or find yourself turning up the TV every time you sit down to watch, you could be losing your hearing. The best way to protect your precious ears is to keep the volume at a reasonable level. And the best way to ensure you do that is to spend the money on a decent pair of headphones or earbuds that fit (neither type is better or worse for you). The better they fit, the less outside noise they’ll let in and more they will seal in what you actually want to listen to. Then you can keep the volume turned down lower, while still getting the most out of your music—and your ears.

READ MORE: How Noise Is Messing With Your Health