Loud noises can be annoying or even frightening. But sometimes, like at a concert or sporting event, noise can be fun—the louder the better!
No matter the source, though, loud noises can damage your hearing, says UNC Health audiologist Patricia Johnson, AuD.
“A big blast, like from a firearm, close to your ears can damage your hearing immediately,” she says.
With less intense sounds, the damage may occur over time and can transition from temporary to permanent.
How Hearing Loss Happens
Tiny hair cells deep in our inner ears (in the snail-shaped cochlea) respond to the motion of fluids that are moved by sound waves. The hair cells then create neural impulses that carry the sound to our brains.
These hairs are supposed to stand up, but “over time, loud noises can cause these hair cells to keel over from fatigue,” Dr. Johnson says. Extremely loud noises, like gunshots, can “rip them up by their roots,” resulting in permanent damage.
Fortunately, the auditory system is usually good at repairing itself, she says. Allowing your ears to rest by avoiding loud sounds after being in a noisy environment can help your ears recover.
“Most times, hearing will recover within 24 hours,” she says. “But at some point, the damage to those hair cells is too extensive, and the hearing loss can be permanent.”
Signs of Hearing Loss
The two most common signs of noise-induced hearing loss are:
- Ringing, a high-pitched whine or buzzing in the ears
- Everyday sounds that are muffled, as if you have cotton in your ears
These symptoms may resolve quickly, or they may be permanent, depending on the extent of your exposure to noise.
After a few weeks or a month, if you are still turning up the volume on your television or devices, or you think people around you are mumbling, it’s time to get your hearing checked by an audiologist, Dr. Johnson says.
Try to Stay Away from Sounds Higher Than 85 Decibels
The louder the sound, the faster it will damage your hearing, Dr. Johnson says, but over time, even what we might consider reasonable noise levels can be damaging.
Federal standards say noise in the workplace should not be greater than 85 decibels over an eight-hour workday.
“A leaf blower, hair dryer or subway can be that loud,” Dr. Johnson says. “Anything that requires you to shout to someone who’s an arm’s length away (about 3 feet) is at least 85 decibels.”
Free mobile phone apps, including one from NIOSH, can measure the noise level where you are.
Dr. Johnson once used an app on her phone to gauge the noise level in a nightclub.
“It registered a peak of 110 decibels,” she says. “That level can be damaging within five to 15 minutes.”
People at Risk of Hearing Loss
Anyone who listens to music at a high volume, spends time in packed stadiums or arenas, or works near loud machinery can damage their hearing if they don’t protect themselves.
NIOSH reports that “hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition after high blood pressure and arthritis. It is more common than diabetes, vision trouble or cancer.” More than 11 percent of workers have some hearing problems, with nearly 1 in 4 cases caused by work-related exposures.
You don’t have to be in a manufacturing plant with loud machinery whirling around you for your hearing to be in danger. Anyone who uses chemicals called ototoxicants risks hearing loss. These chemicals may be found in certain pesticides, plastics, cleaning agents, cigarette smoke, insulating materials, and carbon monoxide produced by activities such as welding and by gasoline-powered tools and vehicles. Noise exposure along with chemical exposure is even more harmful when combined.
If you’re dealing with a chemical, wear gloves, eye protection and a respirator, as appropriate. Follow chemical safety instructions.
Protect Your Hearing
Earplugs and earmuffs (the personal protective equipment, not the clothing accessories some people wear in the winter) are important, Dr. Johnson says. If you get foam or plastic earplugs, make sure to pull back on your upper ear and get the plugs as deep into the ear canal as you can.
“Most people don’t put them in deep enough,” she says. “They wind up getting only about half the benefit of hearing protection that they think they are getting.”
She recommends working with an audiologist to ensure you’re using the right size earplugs and inserting them properly. Also, ask your primary care provider to check your ear canals when you see them. It’s hard to know if you have earwax buildup, which can affect the fit of earplugs.
Earmuffs are the best protection for noises generated outdoors, especially power tools, Dr. Johnson says. They can be found at most hardware and home improvement stores, as well as online.
“If you’re working with tools, it’s easy to take them on and off,” she says, “especially if your hands are dirty.”
Earmuffs are also the way to go to protect children’s hearing, she says. They are available in many places that sell children’s wear. They’re also available online. Remember to bring the earmuffs to parades, fireworks shows, monster truck rallies, music festivals—any particularly loud family event.
“Children learn from their family and caregivers the good hearing habits that will protect their hearing for a lifetime,” Dr. Johnson says.
For Those Who Like the Noise …
Sure, you go to a concert to hear the music, or a sporting event to cheer on your team. But is it worth damaging your hearing? Remember that ear protection won’t ruin the fun.
“The goal of wearing hearing protection is not to block out all sound,” Dr. Johnson says, “but to shift exposure down into a safe intensity level.”
If you’re playing music in the car, at a party or through your headphones, watch the volume. The louder you play it now, the louder you’ll need to play it in the future.
“It’s like getting a sunburn,” she says. “Maybe you were having fun and forgot to reapply sunscreen. It’s uncomfortable for a while, but it will heal. If you keep getting burned over and over, though, it will change your skin.”
Get a Baseline Hearing Measurement
Dr. Johnson recommends that people get a comprehensive hearing test to get a baseline measure before they have any trouble hearing. This way, hearing loss can be tracked over time.
Almost everyone has some age-related hearing loss as they get older. A baseline assessment can help determine if noise is making the problem worse.
“Some people should see an audiologist regularly,” Dr. Johnson says. For example, “it’s a good idea for professional musicians to work with an audiologist who can help them get custom-fitted earplugs. Prevention is the critical first step to protecting their most important asset, their ears.”
If you know you’re going to be exposed to loud noises, or your ears are ringing and sounds are muffled, talk to your doctor or audiologist, or find one near you.