It isn’t always easy. Our world has become very noisy; we are exposed to dangerously loud sounds on a regular basis, from the daily work environment to recreational activities. We need to be more conscious about the sounds around us and get smart about protecting our sense of hearing.
How Hearing Loss Occurs
Sound impacts the cochlea by moving delicate “hair cells” that are located deep within the organ. The louder the sound, the more movement that occurs within the cochlea, and the greater the amount of little hair cells displaced. The movement caused by very loud sounds can actually “shove” the hair cells hard enough to damage them, sometimes even breaking the hair cells right off its shaft. The sound literally blows part of the hair cell away! Once these hair cells are damaged or broken, they no longer function to their full potential. Their sensitivity to sound becomes reduced, which results in hearing loss; or they fire constantly, creating a never-ending noise in your head called tinnitus. Therefore, it is very important to understand when sounds are loud enough to actually cause lasting damage to the cochlea.
Sound is measured in decibels (dB). The softest sound level the average-hearing person can perceive is 0dB. According to OSHA, being exposed to sound levels of 85dB for more than eight hours is considered unsafe. The louder a sound becomes, the less amount of time our hearing organs can tolerate it before damage occurs. For an extremely loud sound, such as gunfire at 140dB, our hearing organs can experience permanent damage within seconds.
Recognizing Dangerous Sound Levels
A good rule to follow when it comes to protecting your hearing is that if the noise around you is loud enough that you cannot carry on a conversation with someone within arm’s reach without having to raise your voice to be heard, you need hearing protection. Here are a few examples of the volume of some everyday sounds:
Decibel Level – Activity/Event
0dB – Softest sound the normal-hearing ear can detect
30dB – Whisper, quiet room, library
50-65dB – Normal conversation, dishwasher running
80-85dB – Alarm clock, lawnmower, shop tools
90-95dB – Hair dryer, blender
100-110dB – Live concert, car racing, chainsaw, pneumatic drill/jackhammer
115-120dB – Jet plane taking off, sandblasting, car horn, ambulance siren
140dB – Gunshot, fireworks
You may have been surprised to see that the decibel levels of some of the sounds you encounter on a regular basis are above the safe level. Awareness is the first step, and then comes action.
Here are a few easy things you can do to protect your hearing:
- Keep your music at a volume that still allows you to hear someone talking to you at a normal conversational level.
- Avoid using earbuds that seal your ear canal. This seal traps the volume in the ears so that it is louder than what the volume control indicates.
- Use hearing protection in noisy environments, especially loud work zones or when listening to live music.
- Try to limit or avoid situations and activities that produce unsafe volumes.
While it is not realistic to spend your entire life in a bubble, away from all loud noises, remember that the effects of loud noises add up and can impact your hearing for the rest of your life. It is imperative to make smart decisions about noise exposure — when it comes to your hearing, it is truly better to be safe than sorry!