WASHINGTON - It is time to sound the alert - loud restaurants have become a widespread bane of customers, with the most desperate wearing noise-cancelling headphones to dinner.
From a health perspective, diners should be as worried about the rising decibels at their favourite neighbourhood joints and national chains as they are about their ballooning portion sizes.
The noise at many popular dining spots is rising above what audiologists consider safe for extended periods.
Consistently dealing with noise above 70 decibels - above the level of normal conversations - can cause hearing loss over time.
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And it is not unusual for restaurant reviewers who regularly list noise in their reports to find levels above 70 and even 80 decibels.
Hearing loss is the United States' third most widespread chronic health condition - more common than diabetes or cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And noise encountered in everyday life is more of a culprit than one might suspect.
A recent CDC study found that one in five US adults who had a hearing test and reported no noise exposure at work had hearing damage most likely caused by everyday environmental noise.
Teens and young adults are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss too - 1.1 billion of them around the globe, according to the World Health Organisation.
Many restaurateurs believe they are giving patrons what they want by building high volume into the design of their spaces.
Sleek surfaces made of wood, marble and other materials that do not absorb sound are staples of a typical 21st-century dining experience.
An open floor plan that amplifies patron noise is part of the "vibe".
But all that din in the dining room may not be as good for the bottom line as restaurant owners think - not to mention the hearing health of the staff regularly exposed to it.
Consumer Reports, a non-profit that provides product ratings and reviews, says noise is the top complaint among restaurant patrons it surveyed last year, above bad service.
And a recent poll conducted by the American Speech-Language- Hearing Association revealed that more than 30 per cent of people aged 18 and older say loud noises reduce their enjoyment of out-of- home leisure activities, including restaurants.
More than a quarter have chosen not to go back to a place that is too noisy.
If eateries want to keep their customers, there are steps they can take. They can create "quiet zones" for diners with hearing loss and others who prefer calm.
In addition, simple adjustments to the decor - such as draperies, acoustic tiles, partitions and carpeting - can improve sound absorption.
Consumers and restaurant workers can also take action. There are apps they can download to monitor noise level.
If a venue is too loud, do not be sheepish: Put in foam earplugs or don headphones.
And it might sound obvious, but diners can also ask restaurant managers to turn down the music or move them to a quieter part of the dining room.
Finally, more reviewers could list decibel levels alongside stars when they review restaurants.
This allows consumers to protect their hearing health, either by choosing not to go to a particular restaurant or by calling ahead to ask for a quiet table.
When people go to sporting events or concerts, they expect it to be loud and may take along earplugs.
A restaurant, on the other hand, is not a venue people go to thinking, "this could hurt my hearing".
But maybe they should - at least until more restaurateurs recognise that reducing noise is the right thing to do.