Health Answers

How loud does music or noise have to be in order to damage your hearing?

By Courtney Humphries
December 27, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Q. How loud does music or noise have to be in order to damage your hearing?

A. Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children’s Hospital Boston, says that the risk of harm from noise exposure is a trade-off between how loud the noise is and how long you’re exposed to it at a time. Noises of about 85 decibels (the loudness of heavy traffic) can cause damage over periods longer than eight consecutive hours. “As you go louder, the amount of time you can be exposed before damage starts drops really fast,’’ Fligor says. At 100 decibels, the maximum exposure is just 15 minutes, and at 103 decibels, it’s just seven minutes. The average rock concert, Fligor says, is 105 decibels — one song is about all your ears can tolerate. “If you have to shout for a person near you to hear you,’’ he says, “you need to be using earplugs.’’ Moving farther away from a sound source like loudspeakers or machinery lowers the impact of the noise.

The flip side of that equation is that the longer you plan on being around a noise, the softer it should be. Fligor has studied the health effects of listening to music on iPods and other devices, and says that with standard headphones, you can listen at around 80 percent the maximum volume for an hour and a half. If you’re the kind of person who listens to music throughout the workday, keep the volume at 50 or 60 percent. On an airplane or a place with loud background noise, choose noise-isolating earphones rather than cranking up the volume to compensate.

Exposure to loud noises can damage the specialized hair cells in the inner ear that convert sound into signals to the brain. The result is hearing loss or ringing in the ears, called tinnitus. Often, the ear recovers from temporary loud noises, much like the skin recovers from a minor sunburn. But too much exposure can lead to irreparable damage to the hair cells. Unfortunately, Fligor says, some people are more susceptible to this permanent damage, and it’s difficult to know who is most sensitive until it’s too late.

Hearing damage isn’t the only potential danger. Research shows that loud noise provokes a stress response in the body, raising blood pressure and causing headaches and sleep disturbances. Chronic exposure to noise may cause problems over the long term, including poor heart health.