Question: How loud does a sound have to be before it damages your hearing?

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Answer

A sound needs to be over 80 dB before it can potentially cause permanent hearing damage.  However, it is not as simple as just the loudness of the sound.  The duration of exposure and how the sound enters the ears are equally important.

The louder the sound, the less time it takes before damage can occur.  For example, it is safe to listen to sounds under 80dB indefinitely.  Sounds at 85dB can start to cause damage after 8 hours of exposure.  This time drops by half to 4 hours just by increasing the sound level to 90dB.  Increasing the sound level to 95dB reduces this safe listening time to just 2 hours.  The average preferred volume of portable media players is about 94dB.  Sounds over 100dB may cause hearing damage within 15 minutes of exposure and sounds louder than 130dB damage hearing instantly.

As well as the sound level and the duration of exposure, how the sound enters the ear also plays a part in how likely the sound will cause hearing damage.  Supra-aural headphones (the larger headphones that completely cover the entire ear) are safest.  Tests show in-ear earphones are more than three times more likely to cause hearing damage than supra-aural earphones.

What Will Hearing Aids Sound Like?

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If you have, or suspect you have, a hearing loss, you might be considering trying hearing aids.  Many people are reluctant to take the first step because of concerns, reservations or even fear of what using hearing aids might involve.  Many people have concerns about how the hearing aid might look, some worry they might not manage with today’s modern technology, while others assume they won’t like the sound of hearing aids.  The latter barrier to hearing aids is most often a misconception – most people who believe they won’t like the sound of hearing aids wrongly assume that they will sound loud and some even believe a hearing aid will make them talk louder.

While these are all normal, human concerns, today’s digital hearing aids provide a more natural sound than ever before.  Modern technology has become so intelligent that hearing aids process and amplify sound using very clever electronic systems, which can carry out several automated changes at once without the hearing aid wearer having to adjust any manual controls or even being aware of the hearing aid’s sound processing changes.

The most common type of hearing loss is high-frequency (or high-pitch) – this means that the person can hear lower frequency sounds easily, even if they are very quiet.  However, as the frequency of a sound increases, the louder the sound has to be before the person can hear it.  At some frequency, which will vary from person-to-person, the sound cannot be heard at all, no matter how loud it is and no matter how much it is amplified.  The speech frequencies span from about 250Hz to 6,000Hz.  A standard hearing test will test across 250Hz-8,000Hz.  Hearing aids tend to amplify sound across 100Hz-10,000Hz, however this does vary, depending on the spec of the device and how it is fitted in the ear canal.

Most people with a high-frequency hearing loss tend to make similar complaints – speech sounds unclear or “mumbled”, even minor background noise makes it extremely difficult to understand speech, the need for people to repeat becomes more frequent, and increased volume is required to hear speech on television, usually much to the annoyance of better-hearing family members!  So if that is what a high-frequency hearing loss sounds like, what do hearing aids sounds like?

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I’m lucky to have normal hearing myself, so can’t speak from personal experience, but I have fitted hundreds, if not thousands, of hearing aids, so I can tell you about how my patients report their experiences of wearing hearing aids.  Many people report the hearing aids’ sound to be “tinny” – some patients do not take to this quality initially and prefer less volume in the high frequencies that causes this effect.  However, many patients understand that this is normal – if s/he has had a high-frequency hearing loss for many many years, the brain is inevitably going to sense a “tinny” sound when the hearing aids are amplifying high-pitch sounds so that they can be perceived by the brain.  Patients also report speech as sounding “sharp”, “crisp” or “clear” and they become more aware of quieter surrounding sounds, such as rustling paper, air conditioning or a ticking clock.  Many patients note they can hear their own voice more (which people may or may not like!), however, sometimes this can be remedied by trying a different fitting in the ear canal.  Because new hearing aid users can hear their own voice louder, they worry that they are talking louder – reassuringly, it is actually the opposite.  Hearing loss can cause a person to talk louder because they cannot hear their own voice properly.  However, because hearing aids amplify sound, the hearing aid wearer can hear his/her own voice more clearly and at a normal level.  Most people with hearing loss who routinely raised their voice when talking prior to using hearing aids notably lower their voice as soon as their hearing aids are in their ears.  Some patients perceive the new sound as being loud – such patients have usually put off getting hearing aids until their hearing loss has become more severe.  As the brain becomes accustomed to being deprived of sound, adapting to amplification can be more of a challenge.

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Overall, and most commonly, new hearing aid users report that the sound of their hearing aids is just different.  Often people find it difficult to explain how the sound is different, but once they become aware of how much clearer speech is, how much easier it is to communicate with people, how their aids may allow them to bring previously lost pleasures back into their life, such as music, and how general listening requires less effort, they stop worrying about the sound of their aids and instead start anticipating how hearing aids may positively impact their quality of life.