The key to keeping your hearing healthy is knowing how much loud sound you’re exposed to. A 'noise diet' can protect your hearing from future problems.
Most cases of deafness are caused by damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear. This damage can be caused by 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. Just because a sound isn't annoying 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 with the tightening of health and safety rules, working in a noisy industry should be less hazardous to your hearing, provided you wear the correct ear protection.
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.
These dangers are just as serious at an open-air music festival as they are in an indoor nightclub. Action on Hearing Loss recommends wearing reusable earplugs for music, standing away from the speakers and taking regular breaks from the loudest areas.
Are you exposed to too much noise?
You can lose some hearing after being exposed to loud noises 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 (dB). The higher the number, the louder the noise. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says noise levels above 105dB can damage your hearing if endured for more than 15 minutes each week. But lower levels, such as between 80dB 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
- cinema: some films regularly top 100dB during big action scenes
- disco/nightclub/car horn: 110dB
- MP3 player on loud: 112dB
- chainsaw: 115-120dB
- rock concert/ambulance siren: 120dB
Discover from the HSE what it sounds like to have noise-induced hearing loss.
How loud is too loud?
The risk of damage to your hearing is based on two factors: how loud and for how long.
Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 80-85dB over time can cause hearing loss.
You've been listening to a noise that's too loud 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.
If loud music ever causes pain in your ears, 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. If you can't leave the venue, take regular breaks. A 10-minute rest break will give your ears some time to recover.
2. Turn down the music
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. It's also too loud if the person next to you can hear the music from your headphones.
3. Use the 60:60 rule
To enjoy music from your MP3 player safely, listen to your music at 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day. All MP3 players bought within the EU have a "smart volume" feature, so use it if you have one. It will help you regulate the volume.
4. Wear headphones
When listening to your personal music player, choose noise-cancelling headphones, or go retro with older muff-type headphones. These block out background noise and allow you to have the volume lower. Earbud-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 or 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
Wear ear protectors (earplugs or earmuffs) if you are using noisy equipment such as power drills, saws, sanders or lawn mowers.
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 a hearing detox
Give your ears time to recover after they've been exposed to loud noise. According to Action on Hearing Loss, 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 15 minutes 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 95dB for 45 minutes. 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 115dB the maximum daily exposure time is about 30 seconds.
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.
Further information and resources
There are a variety of apps that can help monitor your exposure to loud noise, such as:
- SoundMeter+ provides accurate sounds levels and noise exposure readings to help prevent hearing loss.
- Play It Down is a free iPhone and iPad app that allows users to assess their hearing ability and noisy environments.
Find out more about protecting your hearing on the Action on Hearing Loss website.