According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people in the U.S. have trouble hearing with one or both ears. Some hearing loss can be degenerative as we age; however, noise exposure throughout your lifetime is one of the biggest causes of permanent hearing loss. This is called noise-induced hearing loss. Inside your ears are tiny fibers called cilia. These fibers help you hear. Once the cilia are damaged by noise, they cannot be repaired. There are a few simple ways to protect this vital sense and avoid hearing damage.
Hearing tests are performed by an audiologist. Audiologists are health care professionals who diagnose and treat hearing and balance problems. According to Johns Hopkins, most adults have never had a baseline hearing test. Knowing your baseline gives your audiologist something they can compare to future results, allowing them to monitor any hearing loss. You’ll find out if you have current damage and access to the resources to help protect against future damage.
How do you know what kind of noise will hurt your hearing, so you know what to avoid? First we need to know just how loud noises are. Decibels (dB) are the unit of measurement for the intensity of a sound wave when compared with a given level on a logarithmic scale. More simply put, the higher the decibel level, the louder the noise.
Hearing damage can occur with any noise over 85 dB. To put this in a real-life perspective, think of the noises you hear on a regular day, even in an hour. Now compare the decibel levels of a few common, everyday sounds to find out just how “loud” 85 dB is:
Noise at about 140 dB causes physical pain for most people, though it can be painful at lower levels for some.
Though you can download smartphone apps to measure noise levels, there are easier and faster ways to tell if the noises you are hearing are potentially damaging:
The decibel level isn’t the only factor to measure. The length of exposure to noise must also be considered. Although hearing damage can occur with any noise over 85 dB, the longer the noise exposure, the higher the risk and the amount of damage increases.
Any noise measuring under 85 dB does not require ear protection. But how long can you listen above that level? Your hearing is likely safe if you’re exposed to 85 dB for less than eight hours a day, according to Action on Hearing Loss. Hearing damage can occur in as little as 15 minutes at 100 dB, and even sooner at higher levels.
Now that you know what constitutes “too loud,” you’ll know what to avoid when you can. If you have to yell to be heard by your friend, it’s a good time to move somewhere quieter.
What happens when you can’t avoid being exposed to loud noises? There are many times when loud noises cannot be avoided; for instance, if they are part of your job.
If sound levels reach 80 dB or above at work, ask your employer for noise protection and to assess the risk to your hearing by having an audiologist perform a baseline test. The workplace isn’t the only area with potential for damaging noise levels. Household chores can cause damage, such as vacuuming (75 dB) or mowing the lawn (106 dB).
Wear protective hearing gear in all these situations. Earplugs and protective earphones are both smart choices. If you are regularly exposed to damaging noise levels, you may need custom ear plugs made by your audiologist.
You should also take precautions when you know in advance that you’ll experience loud events or activities, such as an air show, traveling, concerts, auto racing or even hunting/shooting, which is linked to more hearing loss in children than loud music.
Use of headphones and earbuds is not necessarily a major cause of hearing loss, according to Dr. Robert A. Dobie, a clinical professor of otolaryngology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. However, listening to your music too loudly and for too long through them can be a cause.
The danger comes from ambient noise, which is the noise surrounding you. If you are listening to music in a crowded, noisy cafeteria or on an airplane or school bus, you may turn up the sound so that you can hear better. Most MP3 players can produce sounds up to 120 dB.
Noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds may help block out much of that ambient noise to allow you to listen at a lower volume. Custom earphone molds can also be made by your audiologist, which are a great alternative for musicians and music lovers. You need to be mindful of how long and how loud you are listening – the louder the volume, the shorter the time.
Don’t toss out those old headphones just yet though. Being aware of your environment is crucial to your overall safety. If you are driving or going for a run, you need to hear the noises going on around you, such as cars passing by. Noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds won’t allow you to safely pay attention to your environment.
Hearing loss is preventable. Schedule your hearing test with Sound Answers Hearing & Speech. Our hearing care experts will help you with all your hearing loss prevention needs.