Loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss. There are ways to protect your hearing. Audiologists can help.
About Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, or NIHL, happens when you listen to loud sounds. These sounds can last a long time, like listening to a concert, or they can be short, like from gunfire. Three factors put you at risk for NIHL:
- How loud the noise is
- How close you are to the noise
- How long you hear the noise
Sound-level meters measure noise levels. We record noise levels in decibels, or dBA. The higher the noise level, the louder the noise. You can listen to sounds at 70 dBA or lower for as long as you want. Sounds at 85 dBA can lead to hearing loss if you listen to them for more than 8 hours at a time.
Sounds over 85 dBa can damage your hearing faster. The safe listening time is cut in half for every 3-dB rise in noise levels over 85 dBA. For example, you can listen to sounds at 85 dBA for up to 8 hours. If the sound goes up to 88 dBA, it is safe to listen to those same sounds for 4 hours. And if the sound goes up to 91 dBA, your safe listening time is down to 2 hours.
The World Health Organization and International Telecommunication Union 2019 document, WHO-ITU Global Standard on Safe Listening Devices and Systems [PDF], recommends that manufacturers equip devices like smartphones and personal audio players with information that explains safe listening (for adults, a total of 40 hours of weekly exposure to volume levels no higher than 80 dB is recommended; for children, the level is 75 dB); usage warnings and tracking information; cues for taking safe listening actions; options for limiting volume levels; and volume limiters expressly for parents to use. The recommendations would also have safe listening information appear on external product packaging and advertising, as well as on manufacturers’ websites.
- World Health Organization, WHO-ITU global standard for safe listening devices and systems, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/deafness/make-listening-safe/standard-for-safe-listening/en/.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Noise Abatement and Control. (1974, March). Information on levels of environmental noise requisite to protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety Retrieved from https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/2000L3LN.PDF?Dockey=2000L3LN.PDF [PDF].
A single loud blast or explosion that lasts for less than 1 second can cause permanent hearing loss right away. This noise, called impulse noise or impact noise, may come from gunfire or fireworks. We measure impulse noise in dB peak pressure, or dBP. Impulse noise greater than 140 dBP will hurt your hearing right away.
Hearing loss from loud noise can be prevented.
About 70% of people exposed to loud noise never or seldom wear hearing protection.
SOURCE: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2011-2012
Dangerous and Safe Noise Levels
The noise chart below lists average decibel levels for everyday sounds around you.
Painful impulse noise—Not safe for any period of time
150 dBP = fireworks at 3 feet, firecracker, shotgun
140 dBP = firearms
Painful steady noise—Not safe for any period of time
130 dBA = jackhammer
120 dBA = jet plane takeoff, siren, pneumatic drill
Extremely loud—Dangerous to hearing; wear earplugs or earmuffs
112 dBA = maximum output of some MP3 players, rock concert, chainsaw
106 dBA = gas leaf blower, snow blower
100 dBA = tractor, listening with earphones
94 dBA = hair dryer, kitchen blender, food processor
Very loud—Dangerous to hearing; wear earplugs or earmuffs
91 dBA = subway, passing motorcycle, gas mower
Moderate—Safe listening for any time period
70 dBA = group conversation, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock
60 dBA = typical conversation, dishwasher, clothes dryer
50 dBA = moderate rainfall
40 dBA = quiet room
Faint—Safe listening for any time period
30 dBA = whisper, quiet library
The noise chart was developed using the following two websites:
Common noises can be loud.
- 70dB (decibels) Washing machine
- 80dB Traffic noise inside a car
- 90dB Leaf blower 2 hours can cause damage
- 100dB Sporting Event 14 minutes can cause damage
- 110dB Rock concert 2 minutes can cause damage
- 120dB Siren 1 minute can cause damage
- 85dB is the approximate point at which extended exposure can cause hearing damage.
How noise causes permanent hearing damage.
Graphic showing silhouette of a man using a blower on a yard. The sound of the blower is shown penetrating a big ear, going to the inner ear to the right of the man, and causing hear loss. Images of healthy hair cells and damaged hair cells are shown to the right of the big ear.
Sound vibrates the eardrum and tiny bones in the ear which in turn vibrate the hair cells in the inner ear. Exposure to loud noises over time can permanently damage the hair cells, causing hearing loss.
- Healthy Hair Cells
- Damaged Hair Cells
Hearing trouble muffles other people’s speech.
Graphic showing what a person says and how it is misinterpreted by another person who has trouble hearing.
What was said:
“I asked Skip if he felt sick.”
What was heard:
“I a___ __i_ i_
_e _el_ _i_.”
Signs That Noise Is Too Loud
You probably don’t always carry a sound level meter with you. So how can you know if noises are too loud? Here are some signs:
- You must raise your voice to be heard.
- You can’t hear or understand someone 3 feet away from you.
- Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
- You have pain or ringing in your ears after you hear the noise, called tinnitus. It can last for a few minutes or a few days.
Noise and Hearing Loss
How do loud noises hurt your hearing? It may help to first understand how you hear:
- Sound goes into your ear as sound waves. The louder the sound, the bigger the sound wave.
- The outer ear, which is what you see on the side of your head, collects the sound wave. The sound wave travels down the ear canal toward your eardrum. This makes your eardrum vibrate.
- The sound vibration makes the three middle ear bones move. The movement makes the sound vibrations bigger.
- The last of the three middle ear bones moves the sound vibrations into the inner ear, or cochlea. The cochlea is filled with fluid and has tiny hair cells along the inside. The vibrations make the fluid in the inner ear move. The fluid makes the hair cells move, too. The hair cells change the vibrations into electrical signals that travel to your brain through your hearing nerve.
- Only healthy hair cells can send electrical signals to your brain. We recognize sounds in our brains and use that information to figure out how to respond.
You may lose some of your hearing if the hair cells get damaged. How does this happen?
- Hair cells are sensitive to big movements. If sounds are loud, they move the fluid in the inner ear more, and that can damage the hair cells.
- Hair cells that are damaged by loud sounds do not send signals to the brain as well as they should. The first hair cells that are hurt are those that send high-pitched sounds to the brain. This can make sounds like /t/ in “tin”, /f/ in “sin”, or /k/ in “kin” harder to hear.
- Short, loud noises—like a firecracker or an explosion—can damage hair cells. Listening to loud sounds for a long time, like when you are at a rock concert, also damages hair cells.
Ringing in your ears, or tinnitus, is an early sign of noise-induced hearing loss. There is no way to fix damaged hair cells. Hearing aids or other devices can help you hear better, but your hearing will not come back on its own.
Noise and Your Health
Loud noise does not just hurt your hearing. It can cause other problems that you may not think of as being noise related.
Noise can make you more tired and cranky. Loud noise can cause other health problems, like:
- high blood pressure
- faster heart rate
- upset stomach
- problems sleeping, even after the noise stops
- problems with how babies develop before birth
Noise can make it harder to pay attention. You may be less safe at work because you may not hear warning signals or equipment problems. Noise can also cause you to get less work done.
Noisy classrooms can make it harder for children to learn. To learn more about noise in schools, read the Classroom Acoustics page.
It is harder to understand what others say when it is noisy. You may need to concentrate more and use more energy to hear. And the person speaking needs to talk louder or yell. This can make conversations hard. You may give up trying to talk or listen.
So, you can see that noise does more than cause hearing loss. It can impact your health, work, learning, and social life. It is important to cut down on the noise in your life for all of these reasons.
Protecting Your Hearing
Knowing how noise impacts you is the key to protecting your hearing. You’ve taken that first step by reading this information.
The next step is to avoid loud noise whenever possible. Remember, if you have to shout to be heard, it is too loud. You should get away from the noise or find a way to protect your ears.
Here are some things you can do:
- Wear hearing protection. Cotton in the ears will not work. You can buy things that protect your hearing, like earplugs or earmuffs, at the store or online.
- Earplugs go into your ear so that they totally block the canal. They come in different shapes and sizes. An audiologist can make some just for your ears. Earplugs can cut noise down by 15 to 30 decibels.
- Earmuffs fit completely over both ears. They must fit tightly to block sound from going into your ears. Like earplugs, earmuffs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 dB, depending on how they are made and how they fit.
- Earplugs and earmuffs can be used together to cut noise down even more. You should use both when noise levels are above 105 dB for 8 hours or more. You should also use both if you might hear impulse sounds that are more than 140 dBP.
- Do not listen to loud sounds for too long. Move away from the loud sound if you don’t have hearing protection. Give your ears a break. Plug your ears with your fingers as emergency vehicles pass on the road.
- Lower the volume. Keep personal listening devices set to no more than half volume. The World Health Organization recommends a total of 40 hours of weekly exposure to volume levels no higher than 80 dB for adults and 75 dB for children on personal listening devices. Don’t be afraid to ask others to turn down the volume of their devices if you can hear them. Ask the movie theater manager to turn down the sound if the movie is too loud.
- Be a good consumer. Look for noise ratings on appliances, sporting equipment, power tools, and hair dryers. Buy quieter products. This is especially important when buying toys for children.
- Be a local advocate. Some movie theaters, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centers are very noisy. Speak to managers about the loud noise and how it may hurt hearing. Ask that they turn the volume down.
Don’t be fooled by thinking your ears are “tough” or that you can “tune it out”! Noise-induced hearing loss is usually slow and painless. But, it is permanent. The hair cells and hearing nerve cannot be fixed. If loud sounds don’t bother you, you may already have some hearing damage.
You can avoid noise-induced hearing. Protect your hearing for life.