Young boy screaming into a microphone simbolizing loud noise

How Many Decibels Can a Human Take?

According to the classic band AC/DC, “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution.” But the dictionary respectfully disagrees, citing noise as a loud and disruptive sound. Noise doesn’t just come from music though, and often, like beauty, it’s in the ear of the beholder.

Noises come from many things including machines, people talking down the hall from your office, vehicles, and of course music, to name a few. You can’t escape noise as it’s around you every day. But some noises, particularly the louder they are and the longer you’re exposed to them, can cause damage to your hearing.

Human ears can endure a maximum of 85 decibels for the average noise level over the course of one day before that noise causes damage. When you’re around any noise that exceeds 85 decibels, your hearing can become damaged, especially the more often you’re in this situation. To give you an idea, a normal conversation is held somewhere between 60 and 70 decibels.

Decibels, or dB or even dB(A), are how sound is measured. Before we go into an explanation of that though, you might be wondering just how many decibels a human can take. After all, there are limits. It’s more than simply closing the discussion at 85 decibels. There’s so much more to learn about noise levels, their decibel ratings, and what that means for your hearing and health. Keep reading to discover more about how many decibels a human can take!

What is dB(A)?

Known as the measurement unit associated with sound, dB(A) or dB are decibels. That “(A)” simply denoted an A-weighted filter, an approximation of the sound that human ears can pick up. This is what you’ll see when estimates are given for what the human ear will hear. 

Unless you live out in the countryside with nothing else around, it’s highly unlikely you’re not being exposed to loud sounds and noises on a regular basis. For the rest of us, we have traffic noises from commuting, loud machines at work, music, and more to contend with. The higher the noise levels you’re exposed to and the longer the time you’re exposed to them, the more likely it is you will suffer hearing impairments over time.

This is why it’s so important to protect your hearing. Where hearing loss was once only common with the older portion of the population ages 65 and up, doctors are now seeing more cases of younger patients with hearing loss. Some of it is due to a noisier world, but quite a bit of it has to do with repeated and excessive exposure to loud sounds, most commonly loud concerts, motorcycle riding, and improper use of headphones and earbuds.

It’s not to say that you need to live life silently without the bliss of music to carry you through, however, learning to be responsible and safe while you listen as well as investing in proper equipment that helps you enjoy your music without turning it up too loud to drown out outside noises is important for your hearing and health. Keep reading, and you’ll soon find out how many decibels a human can really take.

How many decibels can a human take?

In today’s world, there are around 40 million Americans that suffer with hearing loss. Of those 40 million, 10 million of them are due to noise-induced hearing loss, known as NIHL for short. NIHL can even be caused by one exposure to a loud sound or by repeated exposures to loud sounds over extended lengths of time.

In other words, you could be damaging your hearing by one critical event or a multitude of them over time. It all depends on the decibels. When you don’t protect your ears around loud sounds, the microscopic hair cells inside the part of your ear known as the cochlea are destroyed. These cells have a response to mechanical sound vibrations. They send an electrical signal to your auditory nerve. There are different groups of these hair cells, each on responsible for different rates of vibrations, or frequencies.

In a healthy human ear, frequencies can be heard anywhere from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. But with the passage of time, the hair cells in your ear can suffer damage or break. Damage enough of them and you wind up with hearing loss. The cochlea with its high frequency area is most often damaged by loud sounds.

The pressure of these sounds is what is measured in those decibels. It’s like a temperature scale. The decibel scale can go below zero, and for an average person, sounds can be heard even down to 0 decibels. The sound equivalent of o dB would be rustling leaves. Some people have acutely good hearing and may even pick up on sounds at -15dB. But if you regularly listen to sounds at 85 decibels or louder, you can count on permanent hearing damage.

It’s this regular exposure to the loudness of sound that can affect how much damage you may incur. The quieter a sound is, the longer you can safely listen to and enjoy it. Quiet sounds, even exposed during a long time, won’t cause problems. No one has ever lost their hearing by simply listing to leaves rustle in the wind.

However, even sounds that you think aren’t that loud can be causing you permanent damage if you’re constantly exposed to them. Extended exposures at levels of 85 decibels or more can absolutely damage those hair cells in your ear. You might know that turning up your headphones or earbuds too loud can be a problem, but what you don’t know is that there are many common sounds that are louder than you think they are.

For example, most conversations are around 60 decibels. This isn’t enough to cause damage, but an idling bulldozer that is turned on but not in the middle of bulldozing emits 85 decibels. If you’re in the construction business, it’s imperative that when you’re around machinery like this that you protect your ears or you can suffer hearing damage permanently after just one 8-hour shift of work. If they’re doing construction in your neighborhood, you will want to protect your ears from the excessive noise too.

Now, when you listen to music via headphones or earbuds and you turn that volume to the maximum level, you can be blasting music into your ears at a level of over 100 decibels. This can cause permanent damage, even after only 15 minutes a day! That’s not to say you must give up listening to music altogether, but you need to listen smarter. With today’s noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds, you can hear your music better without having to turn it up very loud. You should still limit your listening exposure, but by using quality products to listen with, you can listen safely.

Other loud sounds in your environment can come from thunderstorms. A clap of thunder rising up from a nearby lightning bolt can blast you with 120 decibels. Are you a fan of going to the gun range or hunting? Gunshots can let off booms anywhere from 140 to 190 decibels, depending on which weapon you choose. Thunder or gunshots can lead to immediate damage for hearing.

While thunderstorms can be less predictable, staying indoors will help mitigate some of the damage from those decibels. And with guns, always protect your hearing when you use them. It’s part of being a responsible owner. Besides, if you do have your guns for protection, you’ll want your hearing to be outstanding so you can listen for intruders.

Experts warn that noise is among the most common occupational hazards in the world today. About 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous sounds while working. And outside of work, many people engage in activities that put them right in the middle of harmful sounds. Most commonly concerts are to blame, though even those that like to get handy around the house with power tools can cause more unnecessary hearing damage when they don’t protect themselves.

How long can you stay in a noisy environment?

Now that you know more about how decibels can impact your life, you might be wondering just how long you can endure being in a noisy environment. It’s wise to protect your ears as often as you can. While you might not be able to plan ahead for thunder or any of Mother Nature’s other catastrophic events, you can absolutely plan for noises you’ll be exposing yourself to on the regular.

So how long can you withstand certain decibels before the damage begins? For 85 decibels, it’s 8 hours; 88 decibels for 4 hours; 91 decibels for 2 hours; 94 decibels for an hour; 97 decibels for 30 minutes; and 100 decibels for 15 minutes. As a guide, most concerts clock in at 100 decibels, and they generally run on for a couple hours. If you’re not protecting your ears, you’re damaging your hearing.

When you expose yourself to these kinds of loud noises and for longer than the lengths of time advised, you’ll be losing your hearing down the road. The good news though is that now that you know, you can stop the damage from becoming worse. You can’t reverse it, but you can start taking care of your hearing today.

Let’s say you operate heavy machinery for 8 hours a day and that machinery makes 85 decibels of noise. If you want to counter the effects (aside from wearing protective gear while you’re using that machinery), then you should spend the rest of the hours of your day without any noise exposure. This will help your ears recover from the noise. Along with providing protection to your ears during moments of noise exposure, whether they’re from working with loud machinery or out at the new club downtown, you’ll be able to hold onto your hearing for longer.

But what about older people? Don’t they have hearing problems from aging? Yes, they most certainly do because the range of hearing decreases as you age. Maybe your grandma didn’t grow up with headphones on her ears, but she still asks you to repeat yourself often. Now, imagine what you’ll be like at her age if you continue to blast your ears with loud music or refrain from protecting yourself around all that machinery at work. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

The loudest sound is around 160 decibels, which would quite literally burst your eardrums. You’re not really likely to get this kind of exposure unless you stand next to a jet while it takes off or a rocket during launch time, but still, even without rockets and jet engines, you must be careful with your hearing or you won’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

How to prevent hearing loss

You can’t prevent all hearing loss because it’s just a part of getting old, like Grandma and her generation before the world became too loud. However, hearing loss caused by exposure to loud noises is avoidable. You can take steps to prevent it and hear better for longer until you find yourself in your golden years.

Stop the damage in its tracks by taking the following steps:

– Avoid loud noises whenever possible

The easiest way to hold onto your hearing is to stay away from loud sounds as much as you possibly can. Sometimes, you might not even be aware that you’re around a sound that’s causing damage. If you need to shout to talk to people standing right next to you, you can’t hear what those people are saying to you, your ears hurt from the sound, or your ears start ringing or feel muffled after the event, the noise is too loud.

For a frame of reference, whispering clocks in at 30 decibels; conversations at 60 decibels, traffic at anywhere from 70 to 85 decibels, motorcycles at 90 decibels, cranking up your music full blast on headphones at 100 to 110 decibels, and planes on take-off at 120 decibels. That’s a lot of noise all around us that we don’t even realize is there.

There are apps for that though that you can use to measure the noise levels. They need to be set up just right though to ensure you’re getting a reading that’s accurate.

– Be smart when listening to music

One of the most common ways people damage their hearing is by turning up their music too loud, especially when using earbuds and headphones. If you want to enjoy your personalized music experience, make the switch to noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds that can help dampen unwanted sounds around you. Then you can turn up your music to a low yet comfortable level that allows you to enjoy it without harming your hearing.

When using any headphones or earbuds, you should never turn the volume up more than 60% of the maximum total volume. On some devices, you may have options to automatically limit your volume. And even when you listen at appropriate volumes, be sure to take breaks, limiting your listening time to an hour at a time at most. By making these changes, you can make a big difference for your hearing health.

– Protect your hearing during loud events and activities

When you go to loud venues like a concert, nightclub, or even a sporting event, you can take steps to protect your hearing there. One of the best things to do is stand clear of loudspeakers and amplifiers. You should also try to escape from the noise every 15 minutes if you can. If that’s not possible, simply using earplugs like the kind musicians wear will help reduce the volume of the music without muffling it. They’re also very discreet so you won’t feel like everyone can see you’re wearing them.

– Take precautions at work

If the place you work exposes you to loud noises often, you should make sure your human resources team provides you with what you need to protect your hearing. Your employer has a responsibility to your health and is required to assist you. If you can, see about switching to a quieter machine. If not, make sure you can take breaks from the loud sounds frequently. Another important factor is to make sure you’re provided with hearing protection like earplugs or soundproof earmuffs to help protect your ears.

– Get your hearing tested

If you’re concerned about hearing loss, you should make an appointment with your doctor for a checkup. Get a hearing test to determine if you’ve suffered any hearing loss. The sooner anything is noticed, the better your chances for doing something about it are. Get those checkups regularly, particularly if you’re at high-risk for hearing loss. Those that work with heavy machinery or are musicians should absolutely not miss a yearly exam for the health of their hearing.

Conclusion

The human ear is a very delicate organ and you should use great care for your hearing health. If you regularly surround yourself with loud sounds, you will suffer hearing loss. Take the steps now to protect your ears by listening to music in a smart way such as choosing noise-cancelling headphones and keeping the volume and duration low, or wearing protective gear in noisy places. By doing so, you’ll enjoy your hearing for years to come!

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