It’s a Noisy World: 5 Ways to Protect Your Hearing

Dola Conceicao, AuD

We live in a loud world. You wouldn’t think so, but noise is all around us. Too much noise can cause damage to your hearing.

What do you mean by noise?

Perhaps “sound” is a better word. All sound creates pressure waves. That is how we hear. The louder the sound, the bigger the pressure waves, and the harder they hit our eardrums. Too much pressure can cause damage to the delicate structures of the inner ear.  Imagine little waves on the ocean versus giant waves. Little waves cause erosion over a long period of time while big waves can cause instant damage. Noise is like this. Small sound waves may cause problems after many years, but very large sound waves can damage the inner ear in a second.  Noise is any sound that may be considered hazardous to your hearing. 

How loud is too loud?

Prolonged exposure to a sound that is 85 decibels (dB) or louder will eventually cause hearing loss. A sound of 130 dB or higher can cause instant permanent damage to your hearing. How much damage depends upon how loud the sound is and how long you are exposed to it. Impulse (short/loud) sounds can be more damaging than sustained sounds.  How long you can be exposed to a sound depends upon how loud it is. For instance, 90 dB is safe for up to 8 hours, 100 dB for 2 hours, 105 dB for 1 hour, 110 dB for 30 minutes, 115 dB can cause permanent damage after 15 minutes and 130 dB can cause instant permanent damage.  Repeated exposure over time can also cause permanent damage. You can learn more about safe noise level recommendations here.

How loud is my day?

There are obvious and not-so-obvious sources of everyday noise. Let’s think about your favorite music. That’s not “noise,” or is it? To put it into perspective, 0 dB is the softest sound you can hear if your hearing is normal. A whisper is about 30 dB and normal conversational speech is around 60 dB.  Common sources of noise can be encountered every day through work and leisure activities.  A blender, garbage disposal, smoke detector and even heavy traffic are about 85 dB. At 90dB are subway noise, lawn mowers, leaf blowers and hair dryers. An average construction site is about 100 dB but a personal audio device at full volume is a shocking 105 dB!  While your typical concert is about 110 dB and a siren is about 120 dB, some children’s toys can be as loud as 135 dB. Riding a motorcycle can expose the ears to 100 dB. Recreational activities such as hunting/shooting and lighting fireworks can expose the ears to 140-150 dB.  If you are not sure about how loud your day is, sound level meter apps are widely available for your mobile devices. Some are more accurate than others, so know that it could actually be higher than indicated.

What happens when sounds are too loud?

Your ears tell you when they’ve had enough. Ever notice after a concert that your ears are ringing? After loud noise exposure the ears respond with what is called a temporary threshold shift. This means temporary hearing loss, which is usually accompanied by ringing in the ears (tinnitus). This usually goes away within several hours, but this is a warning.  Remember, if the sound is really loud, permanent damage can occur instantly.

Noise exposure tends to damage the ability to hear high pitched sounds first. In other words, you may hear some sounds normally, but have difficulty understanding speech clearly. People may sound like they are mumbling, especially women and children. You may also struggle to understand speech in background noise.  Ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is also very common with noise-induced hearing loss and can become continuous.

How can noise damage be prevented?

The best way to protect your hearing is by limiting your exposure to noise. Of course we know this isn’t possible. But there are steps you can take to limit the noise:

  • Follow the rules. There are safeguards for exposure at work. If your employer requires use of hearing protection, that means that there is a risk of permanent damage to your hearing. Follow the rules of your employer for the use of hearing protection. 
  • Lower the volume. Keep the volume on your personal music devices turned down. Headphones tend to block out the noise around you, while earbuds do not. Individuals who wear earbuds then tend to turn the volume up, sometimes to unsafe levels.
  • Understand your limits. The lower the sound, the longer you can be exposed to it without worrying. For louder sounds, wear foam ear plugs, which are inexpensive and widely available commercially.  Earmuffs are also available at hardware and sporting goods stores.
  • Know the attenuation rating. Noise reducing equipment such as foam earplugs and earmuffs can be used for sound level reduction, or attenuation. That equipment is rated using noise reduction rates (NRR). You can learn more about attenuation and NRR here. For instance, a 35-dB attenuation subtracted from a 150 dB noise still gives you 115 dB of noise exposure, which can still be hazardous. Consider doubling up on earplugs and earmuffs for really loud sounds.
  • Special protection for hunters. For avid hunters, there is noise-activated electronic hearing protection available. This allows you to hear clearly until hearing protection is needed.

Not all hearing loss is preventable. Noise-induced hearing loss is! Hearing loss has been shown to significantly impact educational and social development for children. For adults, social isolation can lead to depression and there is evidence that hearing loss can contribute to dementia. Taking these steps now can set you up for a better future.

Learn more about our audiology department and how we can help you with your hearing.