Hearing management

Updated 14 December 2017

Watch out for noise-induced hearing loss

Studies show that noise heightens stress levels and irritation, but how much noise can the ear tolerate before actual damage is caused?

Keep still for a moment. Listen to everything you can hear. Cars passing, phones ringing, the kid next door crying, the neighbour mowing his lawn. It never stops. To escape the ‘madness’ we go to gyms, clubs, bars, sports matches, music concerts, and so forth. But all we’re doing is adding to our daily noise intake.

Studies show that noise heightens stress levels and irritation, but how much noise can the ear tolerate before actual damage is caused?

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO), three factors contribute to hearing loss:

  • the volume/intensity of the sound
  • the time you are exposed to the sound
  • the distance you are from the source of the sound

How sound affects your hearing
Sound is measured in decibels (dB). The scale runs from the faintest sound the human ear can detect (0dB) to the noise on a rocket pad during launch (more than 180dB). Normal speech rates at about 65dB and busy city traffic at 85dB.

Various sources (see below) agree that sounds that are 85dB or louder can permanently damage your hearing, and the louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause the damage. Decibels are measured on an exponential scale, meaning that for every three decibels over 85dB, the allowed exposure time before damage is caused is cut in half. In other words, the suggested exposure time for 85dB is eight hours, for 88dB it is just four hours, and only two hours for 91db, etc.

Everyday hearing hazards
Listening to your iPod at maximum volume or being a regular patron of rock concerts will have obvious negative effects on your hearing. But even those who don’t seek out loud noises are at risk of damaging their hearing while being exposed to everyday noises. Here are some day-to-day noises to beware of:

  • Musical toys, rattles and squeaky toys for infants can reach up to 140dB
  • Electric garden tools can attain levels of 130dB
  • The sound levels at movie theatres have been measured at 95dB – especially action movies
  • A Royal National Institute of the Deaf and Hearing study of nightclubs has found the noise level on most dance floors to be between 90 and 110dB
  • Uncomfortably loud noise levels have been recorded at gyms, especially during fitness classes, a study by the Swedish Institute of Working Life shows

What is too loud?
The AAO believe that when the background noise is so loud that you have to raise your voice to be heard during a have a face-to-face conversation, the noise has the potential of damaging your hearing.

How will I know if my hearing has been affected?
A website dedicated to hearing,, warns that people do not feel that their hearing has been overtaxed before the damage is done. They advise people to be aware of the following signs:

  • Ringing, whining or buzzing noises in your ears
  • Pain in your ears
  • Feeling as if you have cotton wool in your ears
  • Difficulty hearing after the music stops

These signs show that your hearing has already been affected, and no treatment, medicine, surgery, or even a hearing aid can completely restore hearing once it has been damaged by noise, the AAO stresses. If you suspect that you’ve suffered hearing loss, consult a doctor who can diagnose your hearing problem and advise you on the best way to manage it.

– (Wilma Stassen, Health24, updated April 2010)

American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules