The most significant single cause of hearing loss in Australia is exposure to loud noise, with one study suggesting that 37% of Australians have experienced some form of noise-related hearing damage.
Every day, we experience sound in our environment, such as the sounds from television and radio, household appliances, and traffic. Normally, these sounds are at safe levels that don’t damage our hearing. However, when we’re exposed to harmful noise - sounds that are too loud or loud sounds that last a long time - sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, causing noise injury.
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Noise injury can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense sound, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended period of time, such as noise generated in a woodworking shop.
Loud sound does not have to be physically painful to cause hearing damage. If you are in a situation in which you need to raise your voice to be understood, then the noise is probably too loud. Damage to hearing from noise accumulates, just as the sun can gradually damage our skin. The higher the level of sound and the longer the exposure, the more damage likely to occur.
Sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds of less than 75 decibels, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, repeated or lengthy exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels (approximately the level of a vacuum cleaner) can cause hearing loss.
The table below gives examples of various everyday sounds, the sound level or loudness (given as decibels), and the length of time we can safely be exposed to these sounds before permanent damage is likely to occur.
|Noise Source||Decibel Level||How long can you listen without protection?|
|Jet take off||130||0 minutes|
|Ambulance siren||109||Less than 2 minutes|
|Personal music player at maximum volume||106||3.75 minutes|
|Pop/Rock Concert||103||7.5 minutes|
|Riding a Motorcycle||97||30 minutes|
|Using an Electric drill||94||1 hour|
> Want to know more about other loud sounds and how loud is too loud? Check out this interactive noise meter.
> For a more in-depth look at loud sounds, visit the NOISE database which brings together hundreds of noise measurements from around the world.
Long-term hearing loss
When we’re exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, we gradually start to lose our hearing. Over time, the sounds we hear may become distorted or muffled, and it may be difficult to understand other people when they talk. If you have noise injury you might not even be aware of it, but it can be detected with a hearing test.
Immediate hearing loss
Noise injury can also be caused by extremely loud bursts of sound, such as gunshots or explosions, which can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear. This kind of noise injury could result in immediate hearing loss that may be permanent.
Loud noise exposure can also cause tinnitus - a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head. Tinnitus may subside over time, but can sometimes be permanent, continuing constantly or occasionally throughout a person’s life. Hearing loss and tinnitus can occur in one or both ears. Watch our HEARsmart video to find out more.
Temporary hearing loss
Sometimes exposure to impulse and continuous loud noise causes a temporary hearing loss, which disappears 16 to 48 hours later. Recent research suggests, however, that although the loss of hearing seems to disappear, there may be residual long-term damage to your hearing.
Noise injury is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable. If you understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health, you can protect your hearing for life. Here's how:
- Avoid loud sounds and noise if you can.
- Sudden, very intense sounds (e.g. gunshots) are particularly dangerous and can cause immediate, permanent hearing loss.
- If you attend loud music events (clubs, gigs, rock concerts), put some distance between yourself and the speakers and use hearing protection. There is a wide range of earplugs designed to protect hearing while preserving the sound quality of the music, many of which are included in the HEARsmart review of earplugs: What Plug?
- Limit the time you spend in noisy places, and take regular breaks in quieter areas.
- If you use a personal music player, set the volume at a moderate level. Avoid turning up the level to try and drown out other background noise.
- Be aware that your risk increases if you are occupationally exposed to solvents or toxins or if you are taking certain drugs.
- Talk to your occupational health and safety officer about making your workplace quieter. Remember, it is an employer's responsibility to provide a safe work environment.
- If you cannot avoid loud sound, then you should protect your ears with earplugs or ear muffs. Balls of cottonwool or paper tissue offer little protection.
- You should give your ears frequent rest from noise.