The World Health Organization reports that 1.1 billion people are at an increased risk for noise-induced hearing loss, induced by exposure to substantial sound levels from personal mp3 devices and noisy settings such as clubs, bars, concerts, and sporting events. An estimated 26 million Americans currently suffer from the condition.

If noise-induced hearing loss results from direct exposure to excessive sound levels, then what is considered excessive? It turns out that any sound above 85 decibels is potentially dangerous, and unfortunately, many of our routine activities expose us to sounds well above this limit. An MP3 player at maximum volume, for example, hits 105 decibels, and police sirens can hit 130.

So is hearing loss an inevitable consequence of our over-amplified life? Not if you make the right decisions, because it also happens that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

Here are six ways you can save your hearing:

1. Use custom earplugs

The ideal way to prevent hearing loss is to avoid loud noise entirely. Of course, for most people that would lead to resigning from their jobs and dropping their plans to watch their favorite music group perform live in concert.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to live like a hermit to keep your hearing. If you’re exposed to loud noise at work, or if you plan on going to a live performance, rather than avoiding the noise you can reduce its volume with earplugs. One alternative is to pick up a cheap pair of foam earplugs at the convenience store, understanding that they will in all likelihood create muffled sound. There is a better option.

Today, a variety of custom earplugs are obtainable that fit comfortably in the ear. Custom earplugs are formed to the contours of your ear for maximum comfort, and they feature sophisticated electronics that lower sound volume uniformly across frequencies so that music and speech can be perceived clearly and naturally. Talk to your local hearing professional for additional information.

2. Keep a safe distance from the sound source

The inverse square law, as applied to sound, says that as you double the distance from the source of sound the intensity level of the sound falls by 75%. This law of physics may save your hearing at a rock concert; instead of standing in the front row next to the speaker system, increase your distance as much as possible, balancing the benefits of a good view versus a safe distance.

3. Take rest breaks for your ears

Hearing injury from subjection to loud sound is influenced by on three factors:

  1. the sound level or intensity
  2. your distance from the sound source
  3. the length of time you’re exposed to the sound

You can lessen the intensity level of sound with earplugs, you can increase your distance from the sound source, and you can also control your cumulative exposure time by taking rest breaks from the sound. If you’re at a concert or in a recording studio, for instance, you’ll want to give your ears regular breaks and time to recuperate.

4. Turn down the music – follow the 60/60 rule

If you often listen to music from a portable music player, make sure you maintain the volume no higher that 60% of the maximum volume for no longer than 60 minutes each day. Higher volume and longer listening times increase the risk of irreversible damage.

5. Buy noise-canceling headphones

The 60/60 rule is very hard, if not impossible to follow in certain listening circumstances. In the presence of disruptive background noise, like in a busy city, you have to turn up the volume on your MP3 player to hear the music over the surrounding noise.

The resolution? Noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones will filter ambient sounds so that you can enjoy your music without breaking the 60/60 rule.

6. Schedule regular hearing exams

It’s never too soon or too late to set up a hearing exam. In addition to the ability to determine current hearing loss, a hearing test can also establish a baseline for later comparison.

Because hearing loss develops gradually, it is difficult to detect. For most people, the only way to know if hearing loss is present is to have a professional hearing examination. But you shouldn’t wait until after the damage is done to schedule an appointment; prevention is the best medicine, and your local hearing specialist can supply tailored hearing protection solutions so that you can avoid hearing loss altogether.