If you’re just starting to research hearing loss or suspect you suffer from it, you have probably encountered a lot of statistics about dangerous noise levels and decibels. This information can be confusing or overwhelming because most people are not familiar with sound levels and how loud a decibel sounds, or at what point noise exposure could lead to the need for hearing aids. Let’s take a look at some common sounds to gain a better understanding of safe noise levels and just how loud a decibel really is.
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What is a decibel?
It is important to understand exactly what a decibel is. A decibel is a unit of intensity of sound, abbreviated dB. The decibel scale is incredibly large, because ears are so sensitive to sound—people with normal hearing can hear anything from a light touch on skin to the roar of a plane’s engine. The decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning it increases by the power of 10 each time. The smallest audible sound is 0 dB. A sound that is 10 times more powerful is 10dB, a sound that is 1,000 times more powerful is 30 dB, and so on (it helps to count the zeroes in the scale to keep track!)
How loud are everyday sounds?
As previously mentioned, 0 dB is the softest sound a human ear can hear—something almost inaudible, like a leaf falling. Any exposure to sounds over 140 dB is considered unsafe for humans, and continued exposure to noises over 85 dB also will put your hearing in danger. These numbers don’t mean much, however, if you don’t have a frame of reference for them. It can be helpful to use normal sounds you encounter every day as a rough scale for decibel levels:
- 10 dB: Normal breathing
- 20 dB: Whispering from five feet away
- 30 dB: Whispering nearby
- 40 dB: Quiet library sounds
- 50 dB: Refrigerator
- 60 dB: Electric toothbrush
- 70 dB: Washing machine
- 80 dB: Alarm clock
- 90 dB: Subway train
- 100 dB: Factory machinery
- 110 dB: Car horn
- 120 dB: Ambulance siren
As you can tell from this brief scale, noises can reach unsafe levels rapidly. Most people do not have prolonged exposure to the sound of a subway train, but many face occupational noises that are equally as loud all day long. A lawnmower can be anywhere from 60 to 90 dB and are often in use for several hours. A nearby helicopter can easily reach 105 dB—while most people are not near helicopters very often, 105 dB can also be produced by a large drum, which is a serious hazard for musicians. It is incredibly important to protect your hearing, even when sounds have not reached intolerable or painful levels. Prolonged exposure or even brief exposure to extra-loud sounds can permanently damage hearing. It’s best to avoid loud every day sounds, like yelling, and to wear ear protection around sounds you cannot avoid, like a leaf-blower, a concert, or an airplane.
Written and updated in 2021 by: Elena McPhillips