We live in an exciting and bustling world. Loud sounds are all around us, from the roaring engines of lawnmowers to the clamor of construction sites. Even your favorite hobbies may emit sounds big and strong: watching a live concert or the latest movie at the local theater; spending an afternoon at the shooting range; cheering on your team at a live sporting event.
But loud noises can damage your hearing, either temporarily or forever. In fact, 10 million Americans have noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)—the official term for permanent hearing loss caused from excessive noise. And as many as 40 million adults have hearing test results that indicate hearing loss from exposure to loud noise.
NIHL can result from brief exposure to an extremely intense sound, or repeated exposure to loud sounds over time. Sometimes it only affects one ear, while other times it affects both. This type of hearing loss often occurs gradually over time, making it hard to detect until the damage is already done.
How Sound is Measured
Sound travels in waves. The intensity of energy that these sound waves produce is measured in units called decibels (dB). The lowest hearing decibel level is 0 dB, which indicates nearly total silence and is the softest sound that the human ear can hear. Generally speaking, the louder the sound, the higher the decibel number.
Noise measurement of common sounds:
- Whisper: 30 dB
- Normal conversation: 60 dB
- Lawn mower: 90 dB
- Movie theater: 80-100 dB
- Live music: 100-115 dB
How Loud is Too Loud?
So what is loud, and how loud does it have to be to damage our hearing? When it comes to damaging levels of sound, the magic number is 85. Researchers have discovered that extended or repeated exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above can cause permanent hearing loss.
Three main factors influence the severity of hearing damage:
- sound level (how loud the sound is)
- proximity (how close you are to the sound)
- time (how long you are exposed to it)
The louder the sound, the less time it takes for the damage to take place. In fact, for every 10 decibels, the intensity of the sound goes up 10 times. At 85 decibels, the maximum recommended exposure time is 8 hours. But by 100 decibels, the exposure limit drops to 15 minutes, and at 10 decibels more (110 dB), the exposure time plummets to just one minute. Exposure to sounds any longer than that could result in permanent hearing loss.
How Loud Noises Damage Hearing
Listening to sounds too loud and too long can bend and break the tiny, sensitive hair cells in our inner ear. These hair cells can die if the damage is severe enough. After a hair cell dies, it cannot grow back—nor can it be corrected by medicine or surgery. Hair cell death disrupts the necessary pathway that sound signals must take to ultimately reach the brain. When this happens, noise-induced hearing loss can result.
Hair cell damage often happens gradually, over time. Many people may not realize the effects of noise-induced hearing loss until enough damage has been done to permanently affect hearing. Those with noise-induced hearing loss often have trouble hearing high-frequency sounds, as those hair cells are often the first to get damaged. Those with NIHL may also experience distorted or muffled hearing, or have trouble understanding speech (especially amid background noise).
How to Protect Your Ears From Loud Sounds
Loud sounds are everywhere, and the damage can be permanent. The good news? This type of hearing loss is also very preventable. There are several ways you can protect yourself from the harmful effects of noise:
- Turn down the volume. Learn which sounds in your environment are too loud. For sounds that you can control, dial down the volume to a safer decibel level. Not sure how loud is too loud? There are several decibel meter apps (see below) that can provide noise measurement in your environment.
- Walk away from loud sounds. The next best thing you can do, if you’re not able to control the volume of the sound, is to simply distance yourself from source of the sound. At concerts, this might mean moving away from the speakers. You can sit farther away from the source of fireworks during Fourth of July and other celebrations.
- Wear hearing protection. If you’re not able to lower the volume or walk away, then wear proper hearing protection whenever you’re around damaging levels of noise. There is a huge selection of ear plugs, earmuffs and noise-cancelling headphones available today. Some can even be custom-molded for ultimate comfort. Some ear plugs have been designed for specific activities, like playing/listening to music or hunting. Earplugs for musicians are specifically engineered to reduce the overall volume while retaining sound quality and clarity, as well as speech comprehension.
What is Loud? Best Decibel Meter Apps
We’re all very familiar with units of measurement, such as inches and pounds, but decibel levels can be harder to gauge. Luckily, a variety of decibel meter apps are available for smartphones. These apps can measure the noise levels around you to help you take educated action to protect your ears from noise-induced hearing loss.
- NIOSH Sound Level Meter App (Free; available for iOS only) This app was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to measure noise levels in the workplace for safety and health professionals. However, it is free and available to the general public. The app uses the phone’s built-in microphone to give you real-time noise exposure data, which you can then save and share with others. (Note: For best results, you can purchase an external, calibrated microphone).
- Decibel X (Free with in-app purchases; available for iOS and Android) This popular and free decibel meter app turns your smartphone into a professional (and portable) sound level meter. It’s known for its accuracy, reliability and easy-to-use interface. Decibel X displays real-time sound levels both numerically (in decibels) as well as visually in beautiful wave and bar graphs. Bonus: This app is also supported by Apple Watch, so you can measure sound right from your wrist.