Noise Exposure: How Loud is Too Loud?
Different types of sounds and noise accompany us wherever we go, be it at work or school, during leisure activities or whilst we’re enjoying the comfort of our home. The louder these sounds are and the longer they last, the more damage they can cause to our hearing – often without us even noticing.
The only way to protect your ears from being damaged by loud sounds and suffering from noise-induced hearing loss is by being aware of the dangers and making smarter choices. Only avoiding exposure to loud noises or using protection can prevent hearing loss. But for that, you need to know how loud is actually too loud.
How is sound measured
Sound is measured in decibels (dBA) and is calculated using a logarithm. Sound-level meters measure noise levels. The higher the noise level, the louder the noise. To find out more about how noise is measured, check our recent post on measuring the noise of daily life in decibels.
How many decibels are too loud
It might not be the only question you should ask yourself. Because how dangerous noise exposure really is, depends on three factors: How loud is the noise? How long does it last? And how far away is the noise?
- You can listen to sounds at 70 dBA or lower for as long as you want.
- You can listen to sounds at 85 dBA for no more than 8 hours at a time before hearing loss.
- You can listen to sounds over 85 dBA but damage can occur after a few hours. 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, you’re safe listening time goes down to 2 hours.
- A noise over 91dBA is identified as a very loud noise. It is dangerous to hearing and the wearing of earplugs or earmuffs is recommended.
- A noise in the range of 40dBA to 70dBA is viewed as moderate noise and is safe listening for any time period.
If this seems a bit complicated, the following overview may help you understand how loud 70, 80 and 90 dBA are.
Typical sound levels in decibel
|30||Whisper, quiet library|
|40||Quiet radio music|
|80||Kerbside heavy traffic|
|100||Sheet metal workshop|
|130||Rivet hammer (pain can be felt at this threshold)|
|140||Jet engine at 30 metres|
Please remember, noises are very likely to cause irreversible damage to your hearing if they are:
- 85 dBA and last a few hours (e.g. two hours of mowing the lawn).
- 100 dBA and last at least 14 minutes (e.g. using a chainsaw without wearing protective earmuffs).
- 110 dBA and last at least 2 minutes (e.g. a couple minutes spent too close to a jet engine).
Your ears’ response to sound
- Sound goes into your ear as sound waves. The louder the sound, the bigger the sound wave.
- The outer ear, the visible part of your ear, 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 move the sound vibrations into the inner ear or cochlear. The cochlear 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 recognise 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.
Knowing when a sound is too loud
If you’re at an event and find that you must raise your voice for your friends to hear you, then the noise level is too loud. The same holds true if you keep asking your friends to speak up.
Here is a good rule of thumb on distance: You should be able to hear your friends at three feet away, and no closer. Shouting or speaking very loudly means double the hearing damage – not only from the loud noise you’re enduring but also the close-range shouting.
A person’s individual response to different levels of sound can vary greatly. However, you can easily identify a sound that is too loud if you find yourself:
- Raising your voice to be heard.
- Listening very intently.
- Unable to hear voices from three feet or less away.
- Hearing speech around you which sounds muffled or dull, even after you’ve left the noisy area.
- Experiencing pain or ringing in your ears after you heard the noise (also called tinnitus).
These are clear signs that you’ve been exposed to too loud noises and have possibly damaged your hearing. In this case, you should immediately get a hearing assessment by a trusted audiologist. A hearing test is essential to manage any harm and reduce any further deterioration of your hearing.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, or NIHL, may happen 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.
Remember, these 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
A close-range gun blast may be brief, but the intensity and proximity are enough to cause immediate hearing damage. While a hairdryer isn’t as loud as a gun, if you’re operating one for hours every workday at a hair salon, you can start to experience hearing loss.
How can you protect your hearing?
Knowing how noise impacts you is the key to protecting your hearing. The next step is to avoid loud noise whenever possible. If you must 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 to protect your hearing:
- 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 totally block the ear canals. They come in different shapes and sizes. An audiologist can custom-make them 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 dB.
- 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 Organisation recommends a maximum 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 theatre 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 theatres, health clubs, dance clubs, bars, and amusement centres are very noisy. Speak to managers about the loud noise and how it may hurt hearing. Ask that they turn the volume down.
In the workplace
Workplaces are required to provide audiometric testing for workers who are being exposed to noise that exceeds the exposure standard. They are also required to provide personal hearing protectors as a preventative measure.
Audiometric testing is usually provided within three months of a worker starting a job that exposes them to a risk of work-related, noise-induced hearing loss.
Starting the audiometric testing before people are exposed to hazardous noise. provides a baseline as a reference for future audiometric test results. Regular follow-up tests should occur at least every two years.
Wrapping it up
We all experience exposure to a range of noise levels in our everyday lives. It is important to be aware of occasions when excess noise may damage our hearing and protect ourselves. Noise-induced hearing loss is usually slow and painless. It is also often permanent because loud noise can cause irreversible damage to the ear.
If you feel that your hearing may have worsened, book an appointment with one of our highly-skilled, friendly audiologists for a thorough hearing assessment. Luckily, there are remedial actions that can improve your hearing and your engagement with work and life.