We are constantly exposed to varying levels of noise as we navigate our daily lives. Some of the sounds that we absorb from daily activities that we participate in can be harmful to hearing health. Learning about noise exposure, how it can impact hearing, and ways you can reduce your risk can prevent the development of hearing loss.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Loud noise is a major cause of hearing loss. Known as noise-induced hearing loss, this type of impaired hearing is permanent and is typically treated with hearing aids. One-time or consistent exposure to loud noise can damage the hair cells in the inner ear. These sensory cells are responsible for converting incoming soundwaves into electrical signals. Once converted into these signals, they get carried to the brain where they are further processed and assigned meaning which is how we can understand what we hear.
Loud noise can cause hair cells in the inner ear to lose sensitivity, causing them to become increasingly vulnerable to completely dying. This damage prevents them from carrying out their essential function of translating soundwaves for the brain which then makes it more challenging for the brain to process and understand sound. There are thousands of hair cells in each ear and unlike other types of cells we have, they do not regenerate. There are also no medical interventions that can correct damage to these cells or replenish them. This means that damage is permanent, resulting in chronic hearing loss.
How Loud is Too Loud?
You are likely wondering how loud the noise has to be for it to damage hearing. Well, the sound is measured in units referred to as decibels, and noise above 85dB can be hazardous for hearing health. This is the equivalent of busy city traffic, noise in an active restaurant, and a hairdryer. To better understand this scale, a few helpful metrics are:
- 0dB: near-complete silence
- 20dB: leaves rustling, whispers
- 50dB: normal conversation
- 85dB: busy city traffic
- 100dB: power tools, motorcycle
- 120dB: concert, an airplane at take-off
- 140dB: fireworks
Experts suggest that people can be exposed to sound at 85dB for 8 hours per day without harming hearing. But exposure to noise beyond this safety threshold should be adjusted. According to guidelines established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), safe listening includes:
- 85dB: 8 hours
- 88dB: 4 hours
- 91dB: 2 hours
- 94dB: 1 hour
NIOSH recommends that exposure time be reduced by half for every 3-decibel increase of sound. Exceeding this can permanently damage hearing, causing noise-induced hearing loss.
Everyday Activities That Could Harm Hearing
Though it is commonly assumed that sound on the level of fireworks or sirens is hard on the ears, there are everyday sounds that we are exposed to that can also damage hearing. Various daily activities produce a sound that is likely much louder than you think. This includes the following:
- Using household appliances. Numerous household appliances produce near sound and beyond 85dB. This includes:
- juicer, hairdryer, blender, food processors: 80-90dB
- lawnmower, vacuum cleaner: 90dB
- power tools (chainsaw, hand drill): 100dB
- Working in loud environments. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 30 million people are exposed to dangerous noise levels in the workplace. This makes the workplace a common source of loud noise exposure. Noisy work environments include construction sites, transportation hubs, music venues, etc.
- Engaging in social activities. Countless social activities and settings also produce sound that surpasses 85dB – concerts, watching a sports game in an arena or bar, shooting ranges, etc.
- Using electronic Devices: listening to audio – podcasts, music, etc. – is another source of loud noise exposure. Headphones or earbuds, depending on the type, can reach up to 100dB.
These everyday activities can regularly expose you to loud noise which over time, can take a toll on your hearing. This highlights the importance of practicing safety measures to mitigate the harm of loud noise and to protect your hearing health.
Ways to Protect Hearing Health
Noise-induced hearing loss is entirely preventable. There are several ways you can protect your hearing health:
- Wear hearing protection like earplugs, headphones, or earmuffs.
- Reduce your exposure to loud noise by maintaining lower volume settings on electronic devices and avoiding places during peak hours.
- Use an app to measure noise levels in your environment and adjust your exposure time accordingly.
- Take listening breaks throughout the day to give your ears and brain a break from constantly processing sound.
- Get your hearing tested regularly so you can track any changes you may experience.