To survive the noisy Nineties, buy earplugs, advises Wendy Holden
They're taboo. They're shoved into orifices. They're used at night, in bed, in secret. They're ugly. They're addictive. They're embarrassing. They're earplugs.

Well, I'm hooked and I'm not ashamed to admit it. And since coming out of the earplug closet I've found I'm not the only junkie. Counter-cacophony measures are widespread.

Racing drivers wear them. Pop stars wear them. People on grouse shoots wear them. Earplugs find their squashy way into the loftiest lugs in the land. "I've worn them for 20 years," says Lady Selina Hastings, author of a recent biography of Evelyn Waugh. "I always wear earplugs at home and I sometimes even take them to the country with me. You never know, there might be a dreadful noisy pigeon or something."

"I wear them on planes', says broadcaster and writer Victoria Mather. "Otherwise those lumping great air hostesses come crashing down the aisle all night disturbing one. At home, I use them for blocking out the helicopters at night circling over Chelsea football ground, which is nearby. It's like South Central LA at times and on these occasions I have been known to remove myself from my bed and book into the Connaught."

Among stars recently converted to the foam-spun philosophy is Whitney Houston, whose daughter, Bobbi, recently appeared on stage sporting tiny plugs in her shell-likes. And earplugs got their first big screen break when Gary Oldman wore them to play the deaf composer in the Beethoven bio-movie, Immortal Beloved.

"You'd be surprised at the volume (ho ho!) that is sold," says Derek Rodgers, spokesman for EC Dewitt, which supplies no fewer than six different types of earplugs to Boots, filler of most of the nation's aural orifices. "Over a million packs a year, in fact, and sales are going up all the time."

Grubby wax ones are the cheapest, with Boots Muffles a mere £1.05 for a pack of 10. A set of four Earfit foam earplugs, inappropriately loud and yellow of hue, comes complete with carrying case for £1.35. Boots' own caf-au-lait coloured foam variety are £1.49 per pack, while the Rolls- Royce of earplugs are the exciting-sounding Earex Universal Size at £1.89 a shot. If you're splashing out in earnest, Aquafit rubber swimmers' earplugs (adult or junior) are £2.29. Free with all varieties come suggestive instructions in the rites of rolling, squeezing, inserting firmly and allowing to expand within the cavity.

Although no earplug customer profile exists at Boots HQ, psychologist Oliver James thinks they're probably bought more by women than men. "There is no doubt that women tend to be less assertive and aggressive than men and so, when faced with a frustrating stimulus such as noise, they may well try to neutralise the problem by putting in earplugs." Oliver, it turns out, is no stranger to frustrating aural stimulation himself. "Every so often, a rave gets going down the street and I start to fantasise about going round there and blowing the place up." Had he considered earplugs? "I hadn't, but after this conversation I just might."

Noise is up: patience is down, says Hilary King, of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. "People have higher expectations of peace and quiet than they used to and they have become less tolerant." Steve Woodward, who works for a local council-funded body whose purpose is to defuse rows between neighbours, thinks the Nineties are responsible: "People are getting more stressed and notice noise more." Oh, for the foam-stuffed, shag-piled Seventies. After all, you never actually heard Abigail having her party.

One option, of course, is to up sticks and head for the Hebrides. But even there, travel writer John Hatt wouldn't dream of leaving his little foam friends behind. "I have an emergency international survival kit that has earplugs from Boots in it. They're very useful if you end up staying in a hotel somewhere like Port-au-Prince that has a car alarm under the window going on all night. It's a lot safer than going outside and making a fuss."

Agony aunt Mary Killen also finds them invaluable in transit. "A woman wrote to me saying that her husband complained all the way to parties. When they got there, he was the life and soul while she was a nervous wreck. I told her to put earplugs in during the journey. I take my own advice whenever I'm trapped in a car with my husband and he's being annoying."

Orificionados divide roughly into wax lyricists and those who foam at the ear. Lucy Gillick, niece of family campaigner Victoria, is one of the latter. "Mine are Boots' beige-coloured ones. To match my ears, I suppose." Designer Joanna Woodbridge is another foam fan. "I've got some very flattering blue ones, which I bought in the States."

"I always sleep with a pillow over my head and wax earplugs", says the health and beauty director of Harpers & Queen, Newby Hands. "In the summer, though, they melt and somehow come out in the night on the sheets. When the cleaning lady changes them, she picks off the wax and puts it carefully by my husband's side of the bed. I'm sure she thinks it's something to do with kinky sex."

Now that the designer toilet brush is a Philippe Starck reality, can the pulchritudinous plug be far behind? Derek Rodgers is doubtful. "They'll never be attractive. No one has invented a fashionable hearing aid."

"I'm afraid," says Victoria Mather, "that anything to do with an orifice is doomed to be non-sexy."