We live in a noisy world, and we’re paying a price for it. Loud noises are one of the most frequent sources of damage that causes hearing loss, according to a new report from the National Institutes of Health.

People of any age can lose hearing due to noise. One in 10 Americans experience hearing loss that makes it difficult to carry on a conversation,. and up to 16% of teens have hearing loss that may have been caused by loud noise. Although potential treatments are being researched, there is no completely effective treatment for hearing loss once it has occurred. This permanent effect is what makes prevention so important.

Loud noise injures hair cells—delicate cells in the inner ear that have tiny hair-like tufts. These hair cells convert the physical vibrations into electrical signals your brain can understand, and transmits these signals along the nerves connecting the ear to the brain. Hair cells help convert sound vibrations into electrical signals that travel along the nerves from the ear to the brain. Damage to those cells is permanent.

Tips to minimize the risk of hearing loss from noise:

  • Be aware of the volume of sounds in your environment, and avoid those above 85 decibels, which may cause damage.
  • If there’s no avoiding loud sounds, protect yourself.. Earplugs and earmuffs specially designed for certain activities, such as using a firearm or a power tool, can be found at sporting goods and hardware stores. Earplugs or muffs that fit properly bring noise levels down to 15-30 decibels.
  • Discuss custom-molded ear plugs with a hearing specialist. Do-it-yourself kits are also available.
  • If children are in your care, take steps to protect their hearing when needed.
  • If your workplace is loud, talk to your employer about taking steps to protect you from hearing loss. If employees are exposed to a time-weighted average of 85 decibels or higher in an 8-hour shift, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates that employers must take certain measures to protect their workers.
  • Be proactive by comparing decibel ratings and purchasing low-noise products that are less likely to harm your hearing.
  • Get a hearing test if you think you or a loved one may have hearing loss.

For adolescents, music piped through headphones or earbuds is the most common source of potentially dangerous noise. For adults, noise from power tools like lawn mowers and farm machinery can cause damage. Hearing loss can also occur from a single loud burst, such as an explosion. But most of the time, hearing loss is gradual and occurs because of daily exposure to common sources.

  • Protect yourself by avoiding loud noise. But what is too loud? According to the experts:
  • Noise that does not reach 75 decibels is unlikely to result in hearing loss.  Normal conversation is about 60 decibels. A hair blow dryer is about 85 decibels.
  • Short exposure to something like a blow dryer isn’t likely to hurt your ears. But repeated or prolonged exposure to 85 decibels may lead to damage. Don’t just consider the volume of a noise. Duration and distance are also factors in a sound’s potential to damage hearing.
  • Music or sound piped through ear buds can be as high as 105 decibels. That can cause damage after only 30 minutes of exposure.
  • Repeated exposure to a running motorcycle, at around 95 decibels, can cause damage.
  • A noise is likely too loud when it hurts your ears or when you have to speak loudly for a person nearby to hear you.
  • Temporary buzzing or ringing in your ears, also called tinnitus, is a clear signal the noise is too loud.
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