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Fireworks, jackhammers, and ambulance sirens can be painfully hard on your ears. But the risk to your hearing from everyday activities might be greater than you think. Someone whose day includes a workout at a noisy gym while listening to music with in-ear headphones, lunch at a noisy restaurant, a subway ride, a few hours of mowing the lawn, and a night out with friends at a dance club can easily end up with a dose of noise exposure that over time can be damaging.
Loud noises can temporarily or permanently damage the microscopic hair cells in the inner ear that convey sound to the brain. Those cells can bounce back from an occasional assault, such as a rock concert. But if you live a habitually loud life, some of those cells might eventually stop working for good.
Hearing loss might progress for many years before you become aware of the problem. It usually starts with a loss of soft consonant sounds such as "f" and "sh," making speech more difficult to understand.
Some ears can withstand loud noises better than others, and individuals' exposures are variable and difficult to track. Noise is measured in decibels, with 0 being the quietest sound a person can hear, 60 a normal conversation, and 140 (fireworks or a gunshot at close range) a level that can cause immediate, permanent damage.
Every additional 10 points on the scale represents a doubling of perceived loudness. At loud volumes over long periods, an increase of even a few decibels adds to your risk of hearing loss. If the noise around you makes it difficult to carry on a conversation without shouting, it's too loud.
The more you're exposed to loud noise, especially for extended periods, the greater your risk of hearng damage. Above 85 decibels you should use hearing protection. For example, if you're going to spend time operating a 90-decibel lawn mower, wear earplugs or earmuffs. Foam earplugs can reduce your noise exposure by about 20 decibels.
Our tests have shown that noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones and insert-type rubber-tipped earbuds, properly sized to fit your ear canals, can be good at blocking background noises that lead to higher listening volumes. Just don't use them in places where you need to stay alert, such as city streets and airports.