Loud noise can be very damaging to hearing. Both the level of noise and the length of time you listen to the noise can put you at risk for noise-induced hearing loss. Noise levels are measured in decibels, or dB for short. The higher the decibel level, the louder the noise. Sounds that are louder than 85 dB can cause permanent hearing loss. The hearing system can be injured not only by a loud blast or explosion but also by prolonged exposure to high noise levels.
How loud is too loud?
The noise chart below lists average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.
150 dB = fireworks at 3 feet
140 dB = firearms, jet engine
130 dB = jackhammer
120 dB = jet plane takeoff, siren
110 dB = maximum output of some MP3 players, model airplane, chain saw
106 dB = gas lawn mower, snowblower
100 dB = hand drill, pneumatic drill
90 dB = subway, passing motorcycle
80–90 dB = blow-dryer, kitchen blender, food processor
70 dB = busy traffic, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock
60 dB = typical conversation, dishwasher, clothes dryer
50 dB = moderate rainfall
40 dB = quiet room
30 dB = whisper, quiet library
(Retrieved from www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/parents/athome.htm and www.lhh.org/noise/facts/environment.html.)
How can I tell if I am listening to dangerous noise levels?
- You must raise your voice to be heard.
- You can't hear someone 3 feet away from you.
- Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
- You have pain or ringing in your ears (this is called "tinnitus") after exposure to noise.
How can loud noise damage hearing?
Understanding how we hear will help you to understand how loud noise can hurt your hearing.
One of the most common bad effects of loud noise on hearing is a permanent hearing loss. This happens in the following way:
- The loud sound is collected by the ear as sound waves. The sound waves travel down the ear canal toward the eardrum with enough force to disrupt the delicate hearing system. If the sound is loud enough, it can dislodge the tiny bones of the middle ear.
- The loud sound passes through the middle ear and travels to the inner ear, also known as the cochlea. The tiny hair cells lining this fluid-filled chamber can be damaged as the loud sound reaches the inner ear.
- Only healthy hair cells can send electrical impulses to the brain. It is in the brain that the sound is understood and interpreted. Hair cells damaged by loud sound cannot send the impulse to the brain for interpretation.
- Intense brief noises, like a firecracker or an explosion, can damage hair cells, as can continuous and/or repeated exposure to high levels of noise.
- Once the hair cells are damaged, there is no current treatment to repair them.
How else can loud noise be harmful?
Loud noise can increase fatigue and cause irritability.
Noise can reduce the ability to pay attention to tasks. This is a concern at the workplace when it comes to workers' safety: The ability to detect faulty equipment operation or warning signals can be reduced. Noise can also reduce productivity.
Noisy classrooms can make it harder for children to learn. To read more about the harmful impact of noise in schools, view the Classroom Acoustics page.
Noisy backgrounds can make understanding conversation harder. The noise can mask or cover up some of the sounds of speech, making a word like "time" sound like "dime." More concentration and energy are needed not only to listen and hear over the noise but also to speak louder. As a result, voices can be strained, and laryngitis can develop.
Another common effect of loud sound on hearing is tinnitus. Tinnitus is ringing, buzzing, or other sounds in the ear.
Loud noise can also cause other physical problems, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Increased or abnormal heart rate
- Upset stomach
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping (even after the noise stops)
- Disruption of the development of a baby before birth
How can I protect my own or my child’s hearing from loud noise?
The key words are education and prevention!
Dealing with noise and its effects on your hearing is a personal responsibility. The obvious first rule is to avoid loud noise whenever possible. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if you must shout to be heard, then you should avoid the situation.
In typical day-to-day activities, you and your children can be exposed to damaging noise from many sources, such as:
- Lawn mowers and leaf blowers
- Power tools
- Kitchen appliances (like food processors, garbage disposals, and dishwashers)
- Prolonged exposure to heavy traffic or subway noise
- Long flights in an airplane
- Farm tractor noise
In addition, recreational activities can be sources of damaging noise:
- Hunting and target shooting
- Riding personal water craft
- Motorcycle riding
- Attending rock concerts
- Listening to music on personal devices (such as MP3 players)
Here are some things you can do:
Wear hearing protection. Cotton in the ears will not work. Hearing protection, such as earmuffs or earplugs, can be purchased at drugstores, hardware stores, or sports stores. Custom earmolds can be made to fit your ears by an audiologist. Learn how to correctly insert the earplugs and earmolds for the best noise reduction.
Earplugs are placed into the ear canal so that they totally block the canal. They come in different shapes and sizes, or they can be custom-made by taking an impression of the ear. Earplugs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels (dB) depending on how they are made and fit.
Earmuffs fit completely over both ears. They must fit tightly so that sound is blocked from entering the ears. Like earplugs, muffs can reduce noise 15 to 30 dB depending on how they are made and fit.
Earplugs and earmuffs can be used together to achieve even greater sound reduction. Use of earplugs and earmuffs is recommended when noise exposure is particularly high.
Do not listen to loud sounds for too long. If you don’t have hearing protection, move away from the loud sound. Give your ears a break from the sound. Plug your ears with your fingers as emergency vehicles pass on the road.
Lower the loudness of the sound. Keep personal listening devices set to no more than half volume. Don’t be afraid to ask others to turn down the sounds from speakers. Speak to the movie theater projectionist if the movie sound track is too loud.
Be a good consumer. Look for noise ratings on appliances, sporting equipment, power tools, and hair dryers. Purchase quieter products. This is especially important when purchasing toys for children.
Be a local advocate. Some movie theaters, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers are very noisy. Speak to managers and those in charge about the loud noise and the potential damages to hearing. Ask to have the noise source lowered.
Can my ears get used to noise?
Don't be fooled by thinking your ears are "tough" or that you have the ability to "tune it out"! Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless but, unfortunately, permanent. Once destroyed, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells do not repair.
If you think you have "gotten used to" the noise you routinely encounter, you may already have some hearing damage.