Dangers of Noise

Posted: December 10 2021

Hearing is a major part of our physical and emotional wellbeing, and we should proactively preserve our hearing when it’s possible. Exposure to certain types of noise and noise at high volumes can seriously harm your ears. 

Doctors, audiologists, and other hearing professionals often advise patients to wear earplugs at concerts, or to wear noise-cancelling earmuffs when around loud machinery. If you’re wondering things like “how loud is too loud?” or “how necessary is hearing protection with my lifestyle?”, keep reading.

When you think about noise exposure, you may imagine a loud factory, a construction site, or heavy machinery — and considering this report from Stats Canada - that instinct makes sense. Stats Canada says that 42% of working age Canadians work in (or have worked in) environments with unsafe noise levels. What’s more alarming? Only 1 in 5 of those people use hearing protection. 

Besides workplace noise exposure, recreational activities can be loud and put you at risk of noise-induced hearing loss (also known as NIHL), too. Hunting, workout classes, playing instruments, and other hobbies are all louder than you think. 

To put things into perspective, a 2017 study found that during a 45-minute spin class, noise exposure levels were around 9x the recommended noise exposure for a typical eight hour work day. Similarly, exposure to a single impulse sound, such as a gunshot, has the potential to cause permanent hearing damage.

How Much Exposure is Too Much?

So, you know you shouldn’t exceed recommended noise exposure levels — but how exactly is recommended noise exposure determined?

Volume levels are measured in a unit called decibels. The American National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (or NIOSH) recommends a volume no greater than 85 decibels, with exposure at this level being safe for only eight hours a day. As the volume increases, the safe exposure time goes down, too. In fact, just three decibels cut the exposure time in half, meaning a level of 91 decibels would be considered safe for only two hours.

To drive the point home, some concerts can reach sound levels up to 120 decibels, which is only safe for about seven seconds! If you’re wondering if you’re at risk, there are a number of smartphone apps available that will measure the approximate decibel level in your environment. An analysis of their accuracy can be found here: canadianaudiologist.ca/feature-4/

What Is Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

Sensorineural hearing loss results from impaired function of sensory hair cells in the inner ear, and it’s permanent. It has a number of potential causes, but noise damage is without question the most common cause. More cases of sensorineural hearing loss are caused by noise exposure than those resulting from every other origin combined. Further to that point, even when noise exposure doesn’t result in hearing loss, it still has potentially damaging effects to the auditory system, and can cause difficulty understanding speech, problems identifying where sound is coming from, increases in sensitivity to sound, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). The good news is that we have the technology to protect our ears against noise-induced damage.  

The best way to protect our hearing is to eliminate dangerously loud sounds altogether. For example, reducing the volume from headphones to three quarters of the device’s maximum volume or less is generally considered a safe level. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, and may make some of our favorite leisure activities somewhat less enjoyable. This is where hearing protection comes into play. 

What Type of Hearing Protection is Right For Me? 

There are many different types of hearing protection available, from simple foam plugs to electronic noise-cancelling devices. Available in different styles and grades of protection, a custom device is always key to protecting your unique auditory system. For example, musicians may opt for custom-molded, filtered ear plugs that maintain sound quality while reducing volume. Those working in industrial settings, where sound levels often vary, may choose electronic or “active” noise-cancelling devices which provide “more” or “less” protection depending on the level of sound in the environment. In certain cases, dual hearing protection may be recommended, such as wearing ear muffs over top of foam or custom earplugs. 

Most importantly, the best type of hearing protection is one that the user will wear consistently when exposed to dangerous volumes. To help determine which type of hearing protection is the ideal solution for you, make an appointment with an audiologist at a clinic like East Coast Hearing to discuss which solutions are most compatible with your lifestyle and level of exposure. 

It’s a noisy world out there — but with the help of an audiologist, you can preserve one of your most valuable senses and protect your ears from permanent damage. 

Author: Evan Mahaney, Audiologist, East Coast Hearing

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