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Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, or NIHL, happens when you listen to loud sounds. These sounds can last a long time, like listening to a concert, or they can be short, like from gunfire. Three factors put you at risk for NIHL:
Sound-level meters measure noise levels. We record noise levels in decibels, or dBA. The higher the noise level, the louder the noise. You can listen to sounds at 70 dBA or lower for as long as you want. Sounds at 85 dBA can lead to hearing loss if you listen to them for more than 8 hours at a time.
Sounds over 85 dBa can damage your hearing faster. The safe listening time is cut in half for every 3-dB rise in noise levels over 85 dBA. For example, you can listen to sounds at 85 dBA for up to 8 hours. If the sound goes up to 88 dBA, it is safe to listen to those same sounds for 4 hours. And if the sound goes up to 91 dBA, your safe listening time is down to 2 hours.
The World Health Organization and International Telecommunication Union 2019 document, WHO-ITU Global Standard on Safe Listening Devices and Systems [PDF], recommends that manufacturers equip devices like smartphones and personal audio players with information that explains safe listening (for adults, a total of 40 hours of weekly exposure to volume levels no higher than 80 dB is recommended; for children, the level is 75 dB); usage warnings and tracking information; cues for taking safe listening actions; options for limiting volume levels; and volume limiters expressly for parents to use. The recommendations would also have safe listening information appear on external product packaging and advertising, as well as on manufacturers' websites.
A single loud blast or explosion that lasts for less than 1 second can cause permanent hearing loss right away. This noise, called impulse noise or impact noise, may come from gunfire or fireworks. We measure impulse noise in dB peak pressure, or dBP. Impulse noise greater than 140 dBP will hurt your hearing right away.
The noise chart below lists average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.
Painful impulse noise—Not safe for any period of time
150 dBP = fireworks at 3 feet, firecracker, shotgun
140 dBP = firearms
Painful steady noise—Not safe for any period of time
130 dBA = jackhammer
120 dBA = jet plane takeoff, siren, pneumatic drill
Extremely loud—Dangerous to hearing; wear earplugs or earmuffs
112 dBA = maximum output of some MP3 players, rock concert, chainsaw
106 dBA = gas leaf blower, snow blower
100 dBA = tractor, listening with earphones
94 dBA = hair dryer, kitchen blender, food processor
Very loud—Dangerous to hearing; wear earplugs or earmuffs
91 dBA = subway, passing motorcycle, gas mower
Moderate—Safe listening for any time period
70 dBA = group conversation, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock
60 dBA = typical conversation, dishwasher, clothes dryer
50 dBA = moderate rainfall
40 dBA = quiet room
Faint—Safe listening for any time period
30 dBA = whisper, quiet library
The noise chart was developed using the following two websites:
You probably don't always carry a sound level meter with you. So how can you know if noises are too loud? Here are some signs:
How do loud noises hurt your hearing? It may help to first understand how you hear:
You may lose some of your hearing if the hair cells get damaged. How does this happen?
Ringing in your ears, or tinnitus, is an early sign of noise-induced hearing loss. There is no way to fix damaged hair cells. Hearing aids or other devices can help you hear better, but your hearing will not come back on its own.
Loud noise does not just hurt your hearing. It can cause other problems that you may not think of as being noise related.
Noise can make you more tired and cranky. Loud noise can cause other health problems, like:
Noise can make it harder to pay attention. You may be less safe at work because you may not hear warning signals or equipment problems. Noise can also cause you to get less work done.
Noisy classrooms can make it harder for children to learn. To learn more about noise in schools, read the Classroom Acoustics page.
It is harder to understand what others say when it is noisy. You may need to concentrate more and use more energy to hear. And the person speaking needs to talk louder or yell. This can make conversations hard. You may give up trying to talk or listen.
So, you can see that noise does more than cause hearing loss. It can impact your health, work, learning, and social life. It is important to cut down on the noise in your life for all of these reasons.
Knowing how noise impacts you is the key to protecting your hearing. You've taken that first step by reading this information.
The next step is to avoid loud noise whenever possible. Remember, if you have to shout to be heard, it is too loud. You should get away from the noise or find a way to protect your ears.
Here are some things you can do:
Don't be fooled by thinking your ears are "tough" or that you can "tune it out"! Noise-induced hearing loss is usually slow and painless. But, it is permanent. The hair cells and hearing nerve cannot be fixed. If loud sounds don't bother you, you may already have some hearing damage.
You can avoid noise-induced hearing. Protect your hearing for life.
More information on this topic can be found in our Audiology Information Series [PDF].
To find an audiologist near you, visit ProFind.