How Hearing Loss Sneaks Up on You

Would you know if a sound is loud enough to damage your hearing? Evidence shows that you could be ruining your hearing without even knowing.

Most noise-induced hearing loss is not caused by a sudden loud sound (although it can be) but by exposure to louder-than-recommended noise over a long period of time. Because this type of hearing loss happens gradually, many people don’t realise they are affected until it’s too late.

Who is at risk?

Workers in certain industries are known to be at risk for hearing loss, which is why there is legislation in place for industries such as manufacturing and construction. If you are in one of those industries, your employer would have control measures to reduce the risk, and you must always wear any PPE provided to protect your ears.

But it is not just workplaces that are potentially hazardous to your hearing.

A report by the World Health Organization estimates that nearly half of those aged between 12 and 35 – or 1.1 billion people – are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged exposure to loud sounds, including music they listen to through personal audio devices.

We already live in a noisy world, but by listening to music or watching videos using headphones, you can be amplifying the noise and causing damage to your ears.

“People generally don’t know about safe listening levels, and in a culture where headphones are everywhere, that’s dangerous,” says UK audiology specialist Francesca Oliver. “If you have a particularly noisy commute and turn the music up to hear it, try listening to it at that volume in a quiet room. It’s painfully loud. So imagine what that’s doing to your ears.”

How loud is too loud?

Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB). Most audiologists agree that sounds at or below 70dB (a dishwasher or shower for example) are unlikely to cause hearing loss even after long exposure. The ‘safe sound threshold’ is 80 to 85dB (kitchen blender, vacuum cleaner, or alarm clock). After eight hours’ exposure to 85dB, your hearing can be damaged.

After that, each increment of 3dB doubles the pressure. A hairdryer is a surprising 90dB, a nightclub or MP3 player at full blast is around 100dB, while a rock concert is 110dB. The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for hearing damage to occur. If you know you are heading to a loud environment, take some earplugs that filter loud sounds.