Today’s world is full of loud sounds, from the roar of lawnmowers to the clamor of construction sites. Even your favorite hobbies may emit sounds big and strong, such as: riding a motorcycle, playing or producing music, spending an afternoon at the shooting range, or home improvement using power tools.
Loud noise levels can damage your hearing, either temporarily or forever. In fact, 10 million Americans have noise-induced hearing loss1—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 noise1.
Noise induced hearing loss can result from brief exposure to extremely intense sound levels, or repeated exposure to loud sounds over time. It can also affect one ear or both ears.
How is noise level measured?
Sound travels in waves. The amount of energy created by these sound waves is measured in units called decibels (dB). The lowest hearing decibel level is 0 dB, which is almost total silence, but it is the softest sound that the human ear can hear. The louder the sound, the higher the decibel level. So, just how loud is 50, 65, 75, or even 95 decibels? These benchmarks will help give you an idea.
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
When does sound become too loud?
When it comes to damaging levels of sound, the magic number is 85 decibels. Researchers have found extended or repeated noise exposure to sound levels 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 noise level, the less time it takes for the damage to take place. In fact, for every 10 decibels of noise exposure, the intensity of the sound goes up 10 times2. At 85 decibels, the maximum recommended exposure time is 8 hours. But by 100 decibels, the noise exposure limit drops to 15 minutes, and at 10 decibels more (110 dB), the exposure time plummets to just 1 minute. Exposure to sound levels any longer than that could result in permanent hearing loss.
How can you protect your hearing?
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 high noise levels.
- 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.
- Wear hearing protection: If you’re not able to lower the volume or walk away, wear proper hearing protection whenever you’re around damaging levels of noise. There are a wide variety of hearing protection options available today, including: ear plugs, earmuffs, and noise-cancelling headphones.
Decibel meter apps
We’re all very familiar with units of measurement like 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.
- SoundPrint (Available for iOS and Android): The SoundPrint app is designed to help you ‘find your quiet space’ by allowing you search for and rate the sound quality of restaurants, bars, and shops in your area. ‘It’s like yelp, but for noise,’ says the SoundPrint website.
Think you may have hearing damage from exposure to noise? Schedule an appointment to get your hearing checked today!
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