Most of us know prolonged exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss. The noise-induced loss is the second most common hearing loss after general ageing. We understand standing under a jet engine all day will damage hearing, but how much is too much? What about those Metallica concerts you went to in your younger days? Working with animals is okay, right? Sometimes which sounds can or can’t hurt your hearing can be quite a surprise – let’s have a look!
Firstly let’s look at what is sound and a crash course in how we hear. In essence, the sound is vibrations, moving through the air and intercepted by our ears. Sounds reach the ear, travel through our ear canals and bump against the eardrum. This, in turn, vibrates against the bones of the middle ear – the ossicular chain. These push sound into the inner ear, where the snail-shaped organ of hearing – the cochlea – resides. In the cochlea are tiny hair cells which move with the vibrations allowing our brain to interpret the sounds.
These tiny hair cells are fragile and don’t regenerate once broken. The more hair cells are damaged, the more hearing loss occurs. Certain levels of sound will cause a “temporary hearing loss” where hair cells only temporarily bend and then recover. For example, going to a concert and walking out with a ringing in your ears that disappears in the morning. However, exposure to such noise regularly over time can cause the hair cells not to get back up. And, of course, too strong a sound level can cause them to break permanently, leaving a permanent hearing loss.
So how loud is too loud then? Sound is measured in decibels (dB). Birds chirping in the morning can be measured at around 40dB and a normal conversation at 65dB. Snoring can go up to 95dB, while a gunshot or jet engine can go to 140 dB easily. With that in mind, regular, continuous exposure to sounds over 85dB for 8 hours or more can cause hearing loss. After that, every additional 3dB halves the time to be exposed without hearing protection safely. This means sounds at 90-95dB would be safe for 1-2 hours continuously before your hearing is at risk.
Sound to loud
Sure, but how often are you exposed to sounds that loud? Well, you would be surprised! Construction workers will know that many of their power tools can easily pass these levels. But did you know a lawn mower can reach 105dB and therefore only be safe for under half an hour? A cello player can reach levels up to 110dB for those sitting around their instrument. Dentists around drills and scalers are exposed to 90-100dB as they work on your teeth. Even a loud childcare centre with screaming children can easily reach 85dB. And cockatoos hold the record as the loudest bird in the world, reaching up to 135dB – good luck, ornithologists! Sound exposure is more common than you would think.
Naturally, you would need regular and continuous exposure for these daily sounds to become an issue over time. But it does put into perspective the question of “have you been exposed to loud sounds?”. So it’s worth having a bit of a reflection and asking yourself if you should look at hearing protection.
As a rule of thumb, any sound that makes you wince warrants a thought. If you want more security, you can download an app on your phone to measure decibels. There are many free measuring apps on the App Store or google play store, which will give a rough overview. If you find that the average decibels in your workplace reach 85dB or above, you might be at risk. If you’re just mowing the lawn one Sunday morning each month for 20 minutes, there is nothing to worry about! But if you are around loud noise more frequently and for longer timeframes, it’s worth looking at protection.
Hearing protection comes in many shapes and sizes. Disposable ear plugs are available at chemists and often handed out during factory visits, for example. These are fine for the occasional noise exposure. For more regular risks, you want to think stronger. Custom earplugs to fit your ear precisely and block out sounds. You can look at a full solid version to block out as much as possible or ones with filters. Filters can attenuate from 10-25dB and thus offer protection while still hearing sounds. It is very useful for musicians (hence their name: Musician plugs) or other professions needing to hear.
Falls of Sound can arrange to make custom ear plugs for you to protect your hearing. If you are in loud environments, it’s worth having your hearing checked annually to make sure all is well. And if you’re trying to block snoring, we can get you those plugs too! Give your Falls of Sound clinic a call.