How Loud Is Too Loud?

Woman with her hands over her ears because of loud sounds.

You ever go to the beach and see one of those “Beware of Shark” signs? It’s not exactly a sign you ignore. A sign like that (especially if written in large, red letters) may even make you reconsider your swim altogether. For some reason, though, it’s harder for people to heed warnings about their hearing in the same way.

Recent studies have found that millions of people ignore warning signs when it comes to their hearing (these studies specifically looked at populations in the UK–but there’s little doubt the problem is more global than that). Part of the problem is knowledge. Fear of sharks is rather intuitive. But fear of loud noise? And how do you know how loud is too loud?

We’re Surrounded By Dangerously Loud Sounds

It’s not just the rock concerts or the machine shop floors that present dangers to your ears (although both of those venues are, indeed, hazardous to your hearing). Many every-day sounds are potentially hazardous. That’s because it’s not just the volume of a sound that presents a danger; it’s also the duration. Even low-level sounds, like dense city traffic, can be harmful to your ears when experienced for more than two hours.

Generally speaking, here’s a rough outline of when loud becomes too loud:

  • 30-60 dB: This is the volume level you would expect of normal conversation. You should be just fine around this level for an indefinite period.
  • 80 – 85 dB: This is the sound level of heavy traffic, a lawnmower, or an air conditioning unit. This level of sound will usually become dangerous after two hours of exposure.
  • 90 – 95 dB: Think of the noisiness of a motorcycle. This level of exposure becomes dangerous in as little as 50 minutes of exposure.
  • 100 dB: This is the amount of sound you might experience from a mid-size sporting event or an oncoming subway train (depending on the city, of course). This level of sound can become dangerous after 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 110 dB: Have you ever turned your Spotify music up to max volume? That’s usually around this sound level on most smartphones. This level of exposure becomes dangerous after only 5 minutes of exposure.
  • 120 dB and over: Anything over 120 dB (think loud rock concerts or exceptionally large sporting events) can produce immediate damage and pain in your ears.

How Loud is 85 Decibels?

Generally speaking, you should consider anything 85 dB or louder as putting your ears in the danger zone. The problem is that it’s not always clear just how loud 85 dB is. It’s not tangible the way that a shark is tangible.

And that’s one of the reasons why hearing warnings often go ignored, especially when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain. There are a couple of potential solutions to this:

  • Sufficient signage and training: This goes for workspaces, in particular. Signage and training can help reinforce the real dangers of hearing loss (and the benefits of hearing protection). Signage could also make it clear just how noisy your workspace is. Training can help employees know when hearing protection is required or recommended.
  • Download an app: There isn’t an app that’s going to directly protect your ears. But there are several free apps that can function as sound level monitors. Damage to your ears can occur without you realizing it because it’s difficult to know just how loud 85 dB feels like. The solution, then, is to have this app open and monitor the noise levels around you. This will help you develop a sense for when you’re entering the “danger zone” (or, the app will simply let you know when things get too loud).

When in Doubt: Protect

No app and no signage will ever be perfect. So when in doubt, take the time to protect your ears. Over a long enough duration, noise damage will almost certainly create hearing problems. And these days, it’s never been easier to harm your ears (all you have to do is turn your headphone volume up a little too high).

If you’re listening to headphones all day, you should not raise the volume past the mid-mark. If you keep turning it up to hear your music over background noise you need different headphones that can block out noise.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to acknowledge when loud becomes too loud. And to do that, you need to raise your own awareness and knowledge level. Protecting your ears–wearing earplugs, earmuffs, or limiting your exposure–is easy enough. But you have to know when to do it.

That should be easier today, too. Especially now that you know what to look for.


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