How loud is too loud?

By | November 29, 2019

When your hearing is subjected to loud noise—whether as a brief explosion of sound, or over a longer period of time—it can damage the delicate structures of your inner ear and cause permanent hearing loss. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and while it’s not reversible, it is preventable.

How many decibels is too loud?

A man listens to music on his headphones.
Headphones are more popular than ever,
but they can cause hearing damage if set
too high.

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). For reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB, a whisper or rustling leaves 20 dB, and conversation at home are around 50 dB. A washing machine registers roughly at 70 dB, and a lawnmower is around 90 dB. Very loud sounds include fireworks (150 dB) or shotgun blast (170 dB).

The general recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency is to limit occupational exposure over 85 dB (about the sound of a lawnmower). But many health experts think that’s not strict enough, because our world has gotten more noisy, and Americans are exposed to louder sounds for longer stretches of time than in decades past.

“Decades of studies show that noise damages hearing and health.”

“News reports document intermittent exposure to loud outdoor noise from yard equipment, construction, vehicles, and aircraft and to loud indoor noise, with sound levels of 90 to 100 decibels or greater in restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, concerts, sports events, and other places. Use of personal music players at high volume with earbuds or headphones is common, especially among the young,” states a report by Dr. Daniel J. Fink in the American Journal of Public Health. “Decades of studies show that noise damages hearing and health and that avoiding exposure or using protection prevents hearing loss and other health problems.” 

How loud is too loud?

It all depends on three things: How loud is the sound? How far away is it? And how long were you exposed? A close-range gunblast may be brief, but the intensity and proximity are enough to cause immediate hearing damage. Likewise, while a hairdryer isn’t as loud as a gun, if you’re operating one for hours every workday at a hair salon, you can start to experience hearing loss. 

Signs it is too loud where you are

If you’re at an event—for example, a concert—and you keep finding that you have to raise your voice for your friends to hear you, then it’s too loud. The same is true if you keep asking your friends to speak up. A good rule of thumb on distance: You should be able to hear your friends at three feet away, and no closer. Shouting or speaking very loudly means double the hearing damage—not only from whatever loud noise you’re enduring, but also the close-range shouting!

The after-effects of a loud environment

If you leave the noisy environment, and you notice your speech sounds muffled or full, you’ve likely damaged your hearing. Any pain or ringing in the ears is also a big red flag. There’s not much you can do at this point except give your ears a rest, lay off the headphones for a few days. 

how loud is too loud illustration

How to protect your hearing

So what can you do? 

Apps can help you measure noise around you

Now that you’re aware what safe noise levels are for your hearing, take stock of your surroundings. Are noise levels at the office comfortable? Are you repeatedly exposed to noise that you find annoyingly loud? If so, talk to your supervisor or company personnel director. For work or home, consider downloading a sound measurement app to help you approximate the noise in your environment. 

Carry ear plugs or ear muffs

Wear hearing protection. Foam ear plugs are inexpensive and easy to carry in your purse, pocket, car console or carry-on luggage. Set a good example for your family and friends by using them whenever you know you’ll be exposed to high noise levels, such as when you’re attending a music concert or enjoying an outdoor hobby like hunting or snowmobiling.

Get a hearing test

If you suspect you have hearing loss, get a hearing test. Living with untreated hearing loss is linked to cognitive decline, depression and social isolation. Make the call to a hearing healthcare professional today to discuss your concerns. 

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