You’ve probably been told once or twice that you’ll lose your hearing if you do (or don’t do) something. Perhaps a concerned parent has warned you against sitting too close to the TV, or a phone or mp3 player has alerted you that your volume’s too loud. But how can we really tell how loud is “too loud?”

In this article, we’ll look at how noises impact us, how to measure that impact, and some of the ways you can protect yourself against noise-induced hearing loss.

The Process of Hearing

To understand noise-induced hearing loss, we must look at a critical component of the hearing process: our hair receptors. The inner ear contains thousands of tiny fragile hairs that process sound waves and send them to the brain. We’re born with thousands of them, and it's natural for them to deteriorate throughout our life. These hair receptors are easily broken and don't regrow, which means any damage to them contributes to permanent hearing loss.

Hair receptors are very sensitive to noise, and the louder the noise, the more damage done. While it’s natural for them to break down as we age, how fast or soon they do is determined by how we treat them. 

What Types of Noise Cause Hearing Loss?

Noise is noise—it’s the level, frequency, and distance that determine whether a noise will damage our hair receptors, and to what extent.

Contributing Factors to Noise-Induced Hearing Loss:

  1. Level: The Intensity of Noise

    Sometimes, a one-time exposure to an extremely loud noise, such as an explosion, firecracker, or even a lawnmower, can lead to hearing loss.

  2. Frequency: Continuous Exposure to Noise

    Repetitive noise exposure can happen at sporting events, in a loud work environment, or by continuously wearing headphones with the volume too high.

  3. Distance: Where Noise Occurs Relative to You

    Nearby noises have a bigger impact than distant ones. For example, earbuds will bring noises closer to the ear than a small speaker across the room can.

Decibels (Db)

Luckily, we do have a tool that helps us determine when a noise becomes harmful to our hearing. Decibels (Db) measure the energy travelling through sound waves, which we interpret as volume.

Decibels don’t grow at a constant rate. They grow logarithmically, or exponentially. Think of it like interest rates on a house or car—each incremental increase is compounded. They don’t act independently, but rather feed off each other.

You can get specific decibel measurements all on your own. Decibel meters, also referred to as sound level meters, are available on any smartphone app store and can help you measure the noises around you. We recommend using it to learn about the noises in your life and how they may be impacting you.

We’ve also showcased some common noises and where they fall in decibel levels below. You can use this chart to determine which noises in your life are considered safe.

How many Decibels is safe?

Generally, noises below 70 Db are considered safe. Exposure to anything above that for long periods of time can damage our hearing. The higher the level and/or closer the proximity, the less time a noise takes to cause damage. Noises over 120 Db have the potential to cause immediate hearing loss.

Remember, our inner ears contain thousands of hair receptors, and hearing loss often happens gradually. While we might not always notice an immediate difference in our hearing after exposure to a loud noise, it’s still important to take preventative measures.

Protecting our Hearing

Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, but preventable. Understanding decibel levels and what noises cause hearing loss can help us better protect our hearing. Some ways of doing this include keeping the volume at a reasonable level when listening to music and distancing yourself from high-decibel noises.

Some work environments involving things like airplanes, machinery, or music can make it impossible to escape harmful noises. Thankfully, custom earplugs can be purchased to help mitigate damage.

Being aware of how noise affects our hearing and making efforts to buffer loud noises through distance, avoidance, and/or protective wear can help you maintain healthy ears and prevent noise-induced hearing loss.

How to Treat Hearing Loss

Understanding the different types of hearing loss and why they happen is the best way to ensure the best possible treatment plan. Ignoring it or using inappropriate protection measures only leads to continued, and sometimes permanent, hearing loss.

Consult a specialist if you or a loved one are experiencing hearing loss. The first step is to see a general practitioner or family doctor, though walk-in clinics can provide the same care. You may be referred to a hearing specialist, such as a practitioner or audiologist, for further testing. Depending on the cause of hearing loss, you may also be sent to a doctor who specializes in otolaryngology—more commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT)—on your path to recovery.

Hearing loss can be frustrating and scary, both for people experiencing it and those around them. But the good news is that no matter the cause of hearing loss, the ability to hear the world around us can almost always be restored to some degree if addressed swiftly and correctly.