Noise

Audiology Information Series Loud noise can be very damaging to hearing. Your risk for noise-induced hearing loss is influenced by the sound’s loudness and the length of time that you are listen to it. Noise levels are measured in decibels, known as dBA. Loud noises have high decibel levels. You can listen to sounds at levels from 0-70 dBA for as long as you want. Sounds louder than 85 dBA may cause damage if you listen for 8 hours or more. For every 5 dB increase in loudness, the amount of time you should be exposed unprotected is decreased by half. For example, at 95 dBA, you can safely listen for two hours. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can injury your hearing—even a single loud sound blast or explosion, known as impulse or impact noise. These noises are measured in dB Peak Pressure, or dBP.

More information on this topic can be found in our Audiology Information Series [PDF].

How loud is too loud?

The noise chart below lists average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.

Painful

150 dBP = fireworks at 3 feet (impulse noise)

140 dBP = firearms (impulse noise)

140 dBA = jet engine

130 dBA = jackhammer

120 dBA = jet plane takeoff, siren

Extremely Loud

110 dBA = maximum output of some MP3 players, model airplane, chain saw

106 dBA = gas lawn mower, snowblower

100 dBA = hand drill, pneumatic drill

90 dBA = subway, passing motorcycle

Very Loud

80–90 dBA = blow-dryer, kitchen blender, food processor 

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that workers in noisy environments 85 dBA or louder for an 8-hour workday limit their exposure at this loudness level.

Loud (safe for 24 hours or more)

70 dB = busy traffic, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock

Moderate (safe for 24 hours or more)

60 dBA = typical conversation, dishwasher, clothes dryer

50 dBA = moderate rainfall

40 dBA = quiet room

Faint (safe for 24 hours or more)

30 dB = whisper, quiet library

How can I tell if I am listening to dangerous noise levels?

  • You must raise your voice to be heard.
  • You can't hear the person standing next to you.
  • You have a hard time hearing even when the noise stops.
  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
  • You have pain or ringing, known as tinnitus, after the noise stops.

How does loud noise damage hearing?

Unprotected exposure to loud noise can result in a permanent hearing loss. This happens in the following way: 

  • The loud sound is collected by the ear as sound waves. The louder the sound, the greater the disturbance to the hearing system as the sound moves through the hearing pathway. 
  • The sound waves first travel down the ear canal toward the eardrum setting it into vibration. 
  • The loud sound passes through the middle ear where it is transmitted and amplified by 3 tiny bones.
  • The last bone sits at the entrance to the inner ear, also known as the cochlea. The bone moves in response to vibrations transmitted from the middle ear.
  • The tiny hair cells in the cochlea line this fluid-filled chamber. They are stimulated by the fluid movement and the hair cells respond by sending electrical impulses to the brain.
  • Only healthy hair cells can send 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 sound impulse to the brain. This damage first occurs with the hair cells that carry the high-pitched sounds. Sounds like the /T/ in "tin," /s in "sin," /f/ in "fin" can be some of the first sounds lost.
  • Both intense brief noises, like a firecracker or an explosion, and repeated exposure to high levels of continuous noise, can damage hair cells.
  • Brief exposures to loud sounds may result in a temporary change in hearing ability, which seems to recover when you remove yourself from the noise. This is a warning sign that the sound was too loud, and over time, these temporary changes can become permanent.
  • Once the hair cells are permanently damaged, there is no current treatment to repair them.

 

How else can loud noise be harmful?

Loud noise can make you tired or irritable.

It can hard to pay attention. This is a concern at work or in the class. At work, noise can impact:

  • the ability to detect faulty equipment operation
  • hearing warning signals, or even
  • productivity

Noisy classrooms can make it harder for children to learn.

Talking with friends and loved ones can be hard to understand in noisy places. The noise make some sounds hard to hear or even make them sound like other sounds, such as "time" sounding like "dime." It can take more focus and energy to listen and hear over the loud background noise.

There are a number of other health effects from listening to loud noises:

  • Tinnitus—ringing, buzzing, or other sounds heard in the ears or head
  • 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 from loud noise?

Avoid loud noises whenever possible. Avoid situations where you have to shout to be heard. Be aware of loud noises around you, such as:

  • Lawn mowers and leaf blowers
  • Hairdryers
  • 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, things that you do for fun can also have damaging noise, like:

  • Hunting and target shooting
  • Riding personal water craft
  • Snowmobiling
  • Motorcycle riding
  • Attending concerts
  • Listening to music with earphones

What can I do to protect my hearing?

  • Wear earplugs or earmuffs. Earmuffs or earplugs can be purchased at drugstores, hardware stores, or sports stores. Custom-molded earplugs can be made to fit your ears by an audiologist.
    • Earplugs are placed into the ear. They fully block the canal opening. They come in different shapes and sizes. They can also be custom-made by taking an impression of the ear. Earplugs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels (dB) with a good fit in the ear.
    • Earmuffs go over both ears. They must fit tightly to block sound entering the ears. Like earplugs, earmuffs 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. You should use both earplugs and earmuffs together when noise levels are particularly high, like at a rock concert or sports game.

  • Take breaks from listening to loud sounds. Move away from the loud sound, if you can. Plug your ears with your fingers as emergency vehicles pass on the road.
  • Turn down your volume. Keep personal listening devices and phones set to no more than half volume. Ask others to turn down the sounds from speakers, such as in the car. Tell the movie theater employees if the sound is too loud. Others may thank you for protecting their hearing also!
  • Be a smart buyer. Look for noise ratings on children's toys, hair dryers, sporting equipment, power tools, and appliances. It is important to buy quieter toys for children. 
  • Be a local advocate. Some movie theaters, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers can be very noisy. Speak to managers about the loud noise and the damages to hearing. Ask to have the noise lowered.

Can my ears get used to noise?

Don't be fooled by thinking your ears are "tough" or that you can "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.

 

ASHA Corporate Partners