Keeping your hearing healthy is largely about knowing how much loud sound you’re exposed to. A ‘noise diet’ can protect your hearing from future problems. Most cases of deafness (around four out of every five) are caused by damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear. This damage can be the result of too much noise, and it’s permanent. Noise-related hearing loss is usually irreversible.
It is important that we all take steps to prevent noise-related damage. The key to keeping your hearing intact is to avoid loud noise. The louder the sound, the less time you can safely listen to it, and just because a sound isn’t annoying, it doesn’t make it safe. Noisy occupations, such as working in factories or on roadworks, used to be the most common cause of hearing problems. But as health and safety rules have tightened and heavy industry has declined, the work environment is less of a potential hazard to hearing.
Nowadays it’s recreational loud noise that’s the main problem, especially from MP3 players and noisy clubs and music gigs. That’s thought to be why hearing loss is increasingly affecting younger people.
Are you exposed to too much noise?
You can lose some hearing after being exposed to loud noise for too long, for example by standing close to speakers at a nightclub. Or hearing can be damaged after a short burst of explosive noise, such as gunshots or fireworks. If you work or frequently spend time in a noisy place or listen to loud music a lot, you could be losing your hearing without even realising it. The best way to avoid developing noise-induced hearing loss is to keep away from loud noise as much as you can.
Here’s a guide to some typical noise levels (measured in decibels, or dB). The higher the number, the louder the noise. The Health and Safety Executive says noise levels above 105dB can damage your hearing if endured for more than 15 minutes each week. But lower levels, such as between 85dB and 90dB can also cause permanent damage if you’re exposed to them for hours every day.
- Normal conversation: 60-65dB
- A busy street: 75-85dB
- Lawn mower/heavy traffic: 85dB
- Forklift truck: 90dB
- Hand drill: 98dB
- Heavy lorry about seven metres away: 95-100dB
- Motorbikes: 100dB
- Disco/nightclub/car horn: 110dB
- MP3 player on loud: 112dB
- Chainsaw: 115-120dB
- Rock concert/ambulance siren: 120dB
- Car stereo during motorway driving/vuvuzelas: 125dB
How loud is too loud?
The risk of damage to your hearing is calculated on two factors: how loud and for how long. Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 85dB over time can cause hearing loss. You’ve been listening too loudly or for too long if you have ringing in your ears or dull hearing after listening to loud music. However, you may still be damaging your hearing even if you don’t have these symptoms.
Remember, if loud music ever causes pain in your ears you should leave the room or turn it down immediately. Without noise measuring equipment, it is impossible to tell what noise level you are being exposed to. So, a handy rule of thumb is that if you can’t talk to someone two metres away without shouting, the noise level could be damaging.
10 tips for safer listening
1. Use earplugs. The louder the noise and the longer you’re exposed to it, the greater the chance of damaging your hearing. Protect your ears with ear protectors – earplugs or earmuffs – and get away from the noise as quickly or as often as you can.
2. Turn down the MP3. Don’t listen to your personal music player at very high volumes and never to drown out background noise. If the music is uncomfortable for you to listen to or you can’t hear external sounds when you’ve got your headphones on, then it’s too loud.
3. Be smart. If your MP3 player has a ‘smart volume’ feature, use it. It will help you regulate the volume.
4. Wear headphones. When listening to your personal music player, opt for noise-cancelling headphones, or go retro with older muff-type headphones. These block out background noise and allow you to have the volume lower. Ear-bud style headphones and in-the-ear headphones are less effective at drowning out background noise. Try to take regular breaks from your headphones, though, to give your ears a rest.
5. Turn down the dial. Turn down the volume on your TV, radio of hi-fi a notch. Even a small reduction in volume can make a big difference to the risk of damage to your hearing. If you need to raise your voice to be heard above the sound, turn it down.
6. Use earplugs when you’re listening to live music. They can reduce average sound levels by between 15 and 35 decibels. They’re widely available at many live music venues and shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the music.
7. Don’t put up with work noise. If you’re experiencing noise at work, talk to your human resources (HR) department or your manager and ask for advice on reducing the noise and getting hearing protection.
8. Wear ear protectors (earplugs or earmuffs) if you are using noisy equipment such as power drills, saws, sanders or lawnmowers.
9. Be careful in the car. Listening to music in a confined space increases the risk of hearing damage. Don’t listen to music too loud for too long.
10. Have an aural detox. Give your ears time to recover after they’ve been exposed to loud noise. According to Deafness Research UK, you need at least 16 hours of rest for your ears to recover after spending around two hours in 100dB sound, for example in a club. Reducing this recovery time increases the risk of permanent deafness.
How long can I listen to loud music for?
It depends what volume you listen at. An increase of only a few decibels has a dramatic effect on the danger to hearing. This is because each increase of 3dB represents a doubling of sound energy (and halves the time you should listen for). As an example, being on a dance floor for one hour at 100dB delivers the same amount of noise energy to the ear (and therefore potential damage) as being on a slightly less noisy dance floor at 97dB for two hours. A small reduction in volume makes a big difference to the length of time you should listen for.
In workplaces, staff are protected by The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, which stipulate that hearing protection must be worn if the daily average noise levels reach 85dB. At 110dB the maximum daily exposure time is about 1.5 minutes.
But remember, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations don’t apply outside the workplace, so it’s up to you to safeguard your own hearing at clubs, gigs and wherever else you listen to loud music.