How Loud is Too Loud?

We live in a noisy world with loud sounds all around us. Whether you are sitting in traffic, on an airplane, in your dentist's chair, or at your local coffee shop you may be exposing your auditory system to unsafe noise levels. We have become accustomed to these noises and often forget that loud environmental sounds have the potential to permanently damage our hearing.

The good news is that noise induced hearing loss is preventable. Establishing safe listening levels and understanding how much exposure is safe can prevent permanent damage to your hearing.

It is difficult to know what listening levels are safe and how long can you be exposed to those levels before damaging your auditory system. There is a complex formula for calculating risk; the formula demonstrates that your risk of injury increases as sound level and duration increase. Setting safe listening levels depends on two factors: how loud and how long you listen. Simply stated, most professionals believe that listening to sounds louder than 85 dB, which is equivalent to loud traffic or a noisy restaurant, for any length of time has the potential to harm your hearing.

Using hearing protection and developing healthy listening habits are important for all ages. Whether it’s protecting your hearing from occupational noise or recreational noise establish safe listening levels and limit the amount of time you are in noisy environments. There are several simple ways to protect your hearing including using foam plugs or custom earplugs. Hearing protection can reduce your risk of noise exposure and can be worn during everyday activities such as riding a motorcycle, mowing the yard or attending a concert. Noise-canceling headphones can also help you enjoy listening in noisy places. Musician earplugs can protect musicians as well as music lovers that attend concerts.

Many of the entertainment devices children use every day have the potential to be too loud for safe listening. Approximately 13 percent of teens have measurable hearing loss as a result of noise exposure. Surround sound, high definition stereos and personal earphones bring sound into the ear canal and closer to the eardrum, which increases the intensity of the sound and makes listening safely more difficult.

Another general rule is to keep the volume on MP3 players and iPods at or below half the maximum output. Electronics manufacturers are not required to designate safe listening levels on devices, therefore parents are encouraged to listen through their children’s headphones to make sure the sound level is comfortable and safe. Parents can also download sound level meter apps on their smartphone or iPad.

Holding your child’s headphones up to the app will give a more accurate idea of whether your child’s listening levels are safe. Safe listening levels should be established for children as well as adults while using personal listening devices, attending concerts, going to movies and playing instruments.

In an effort to raise awareness about noise-induced hearing loss the Starkey Hearing Foundation created Listen Carefully, a public service campaign aimed at raising awareness through music and education. To date, the campaign has extended educational support to 16,000 teachers and 500,000 students nationwide. You can learn more at www.listencarefully.org

Excessive noise exposure can lead to permanent high frequency sensorineural hearing loss. Often the first symptom of noise induced hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech in the presence of background noise and tinnitus. If you are concerned about noise exposure or have hearing concerns, schedule an appointment with a hearing professional.


By Beth McCormick, Au.D.

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