How To Survive A Public Restroom When You Have Hearing Loss

I have been flying a lot lately, which means plenty of time in airport bathrooms. Many have made huge strides in cleanliness and a large number are now more eco-friendly, but they have also gotten louder – dangerously so in some cases. 

If it is isn’t the deafening swoosh of the self-flushing toilets, it is the new high-speed hand dryers running perpetually. Both are high-pitched sounds, so for someone like me with relatively strong high-pitched hearing, the volumes are excruciating. What is a hearing aid wearing traveler to do? 

As an environmentalist and germaphobe, I applaud many of the modern advances. Automatically flushing toilets, faucets that turn on without a touch, and hand dryers that replace paper towels have many ecological and health benefits. But as someone with hearing loss, these improvements can also be painful — my hearing aids amplifying every powerful flush and hand dryer blast.

In a busy airport rest room, the hand dryers can be running almost constantly — many clocking in at 85 decibels or more! One common model, the Xlerator, operates at 90-100 decibels according to a report by the Acoustical Society of America. The Dyson Airblade was measured at 85-90 decibels. You can read the full report here

These noise levels are unsafe for everyone. According to It’s A Noisy Plant, a program of the National Institutes of Health, “No more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure at or above 100 decibels is recommended.” You can find a useful bookmark detailing this information here.

I try to get in and out of a public restroom as quickly as possible, but that is not always possible for a women, where the line can sometimes wind out the door and around the lobby. Waits of 5-10 minutes are not uncommon, all with the swooshing water and gushing air as over zealous background noise.

I get a lot of funny looks for plugging my ears while waiting in line, especially from my teen-aged daughter, but I can’t risk the noise exposure. Occasionally I will see other people doing the same, but it is a rare occurrence. I wish more patrons would protect themselves.

So what is a busy traveler with hearing loss to do? I haven’t yet found a way to wash my hands and plug my ears at the same time, but I am working on it. Next time, I may just turn off my hearing aids for the whole experience.  

Readers, do you find pubic restrooms uncomfortably loud?

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24 thoughts on “How To Survive A Public Restroom When You Have Hearing Loss

  1. Yes! They are terribly noisy. I spend the majority of my time in them with my hand covering my one good ear (I am 100% unilaterally deaf).

    My daughter and I were at a hot springs resort this past week, and the other increasingly common loud machine is the one that squeezes water out of swimsuits. It is horrible.

    I think that one of the worst aspects of this kind of noise is that it is sudden and impossible to predict, which for me makes it even more painful.

  2. This happened to me several times yesterday, and I was thinking the same thing: what can I do to protect my hearing? Sometimes, I forget how loud they are and not having paper options makes me have to use the loud hand dryer (which I did) or leave the bathroom wet-handed. I remember thinking that it had to be high decibels and with my super-powered hearing aids, it had to be dangerous to me. Turning off seems a possible option, but then I lose any auditory cues for oncoming people.

  3. Thanks for this, I have been saying this for years, especially with that particular dryer you mention. My hearing aids automatically attenuate when volume is high, but since I am totally connected to my iPhone at all times, I just turn them off when I go in. I am unsure exactly how much protection the aids give my ears when off, but at last I am not amplifying anything.

  4. What this brings up for me is the constant assault on our ears that seems by design and is found everywhere. Rest stop restrooms are equally noisy and usually add some ridiculous pop music played so loud as to drown out the hand dryers. I’m probably making this up, but I don’t think so; it seems like 20 or 30 years ago I read this report where in retail it was found that the conversion rate increased with loud music. The conversion rate is the ratio of people who came into the store and who actually bought something. The louder the more profitable. Through the years, I have developed a sure-fire method for dealing with this rather inconsiderate and harmful practice: if it is loud, I leave. It’s not always possible to share my decision with someone who works there but when it is, I do. Good post Shari.

    • You are right about that study. The same applies to restaurants. The louder the music the faster people eat so they turn the tables faster and order more high margin drinks. I wish quiet was more popular. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Hello Shari! I was just talking about this the other day with my boyfriend! Since losing my hearing in one ear I have developed a sensitivity to sounds. The noise of the hand dryers is awfully loud and I usually also end up plugging my ears 🙂 Maybe one day they will invent super powerful hand dryers that are also quiet!! Take care
    – Carly

  6. I thought it was just me with high intolerance to sound levels! Those XLERATORs hand dryers in bathrooms are the worst. I try to remember to turn my HA off before I use one, but then your hands are all wet and you don’t want to get your HA wet! Ugh. Drip dry or paper towels are usually the better way to go, but then you still have to listen to OTHER people using the hand dryers. Plane noise and ear pressure is another test of endurance with HA’s. My recent flight to FL a couple of months ago, I forgot, and booked a seat right near the wing and engine! (probably why it was available!) Ugh, horrible flight. All I could hear was that engine.

    • Yes, planes are very loud too. I always travel now on planes with my noise-cancelling headphones to block out the engine noise. They are a big help. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Prior to going inside a public restroom at an airport(s), I turn my hearing aid off. Result – no loud noise exposure heard! Inside a plane, I also turn my hearing aid off and that eliminates plane engine noise and ear pressure inconveniences.

  8. I carry a small spray bottle with alcohol in my purse so I don’t have to use the sink. thank you for bring this noise of the hand dryers. I do not have hearing loss but my housemate does.
    I keep a pair of ear plugs by the ‘magic bullet’ when I use it since that is also extremely loud.
    She is never up at my breakfast time so it does not affect her.

  9. Yes! The air dryer is pure torture if my hearing aids are in. Usually when I am in a restaurant I need to take the hearing aids out because the dish clanging and loud chatter is so overwhelming (sometimes even with them out!), so going into the bathroom issue is already addressed. I have found that if you place your hands well below the air dryer and not up close, the sound is not as loud. Another other issue – if I knock on a bathroom door to make sure no one is inside I can’t hear a response even with the hearing aids. Now that is also a difficult situation!

  10. Perhaps a group that has some advocacy. like HLAA can add it to their advocacy list. The driers are dangerously loud, for everyone, especially those with hearing aids, kids at drier level and the people who use them to actually dry their hair. I have recruitment and I can’t bear to use them, especially with the cavernous acoustics in most restrooms. Since I don’t wear hearing aids, I could carry around ear plugs, but hearing aid users and the unaware wouldn’t have that option.

    Marsha McClean

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