How can I protect my hearing from noise exposure?

By: Lisa D. Cahill, Ph.D., CCC-A

What types of hearing protection can I use?

Do you have a noisy hobby or activity? You might be surprised to find out that some of your daily activities regularly expose you to dangerously high levels of sound.  How do we know what is considered “loud”? The loudness of sound is measured in decibels (dB). Most experts recommend that you use earplugs when exposed to 85 dB and above. But what does 85 dB mean? The following chart from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA, 2014) shows common sounds and their associated sound levels.

20 dB
30 dB
40 dB
50 dB
60 dB
70 dB
80 dB

Ticking watch
Quiet whisper
Refrigerator hum
Sewing machine
Washing machine
Alarm clock (two feet away)

85 dB
95 dB
100 dB
105 dB
110 dB
120 dB
130 dB

Average traffic
Blow dryer, subway train
Power mower, chainsaw
Screaming child
Rock concert, thunderclap
Jackhammer, jet plane (100 feet away)

 Did you know that some children’s and pet squeak toys can exceed 90 decibels in loudness? Use of lawn equipment, some kitchen equipment such as blenders and mixers, and even hairdryers and vacuum cleaners can all be sources of potentially damaging noise exposure! Noise damage, unless traumatic and extreme, generally occurs over a long period of time. The effects may not be noticeable immediately, although we can sometimes experience tinnitus, or a ringing sensation in the ears, for a period of up to 14 hours following a significant noise exposure.  This can be accompanied by a temporary shift in hearing as well (temporary threshold shift).  However, with time and repeated exposures, this shift eventually can become permanent.  Once this damage occurs, there is no current treatment or way to reverse the hearing loss, and hearing aids are the only option.

So how do we know if a nearby sound is too loud? It’s not like we have internal sound level meters inside our brains…although, if a sound is painfully loud, obviously you should move away from it or protect your hearing.  In general, if you are standing three feet away from someone and cannot understand their speech, the environment is too loud and you should use hearing protection.  Classrooms can be noisy as well as various work environments. Continuous and repeated noise exposure can have other negative health consequences as well, such as fatigue and irritability, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, upset stomach, insomnia, and fetal disruptions before birth (ASHA, 2014).

Several simple solutions are available for everyday noise exposure. A number of relatively high quality earplugs can be purchased over-the-counter at most drug stores. For example, a box of Hearos foam plugs will cost approximately $6-$12.  These plugs are easy to insert and disposable. When using foam plugs, it is important to insert the plug deeply into the ear canal to retain noise as effectively as possible.  One way to get a better insertion is to pull UP and BACK on the earlobe to open and straighten the ear canal.


Other examples of over-the-counter hearing protection inserts include Mack’s pro-plugs, which are pliant and mold to your ear shape; and EARplugs, which are yellow foam inserts.  You may also find tree-tip style plugs, which can relieve the feeling of pressure and occlusion behind the earplugs while still providing some noise protection.  These are a little over $1.00 per set and can attenuate at around NRR30. 


An important factor is the level of noise protection you are receiving.  The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) indicates the amount of noise reduction in decibels (dB) and is typically available on the packaging.  Most plug insert style hearing protection provides an NRR of about 22-28 dB, which means they reduce the sound pressure levels reaching your eardrum by that amount. 

If you need heavier protection, you can buy earmuffs, which cover and seal around the outside of the outer ear and block noise externally. Many versions are available, and the noise reduction is typically between 28-35 dB. A standard pair can cost around $30. For toddlers and children, the brand Babybanz has created a pediatric version available in just about any color!

Some newer features on the earmuffs are the ability to listen to music via the radio, or even your iPod/mp3 player! These muffs cost around $50 for the set. The key factor with the music feature is not to turn it up too loud, or else your hearing protection effort is futile!

A popular approach in cases of extreme noise levels is to combine both earplugs AND earmuffs together, to further increase the noise reduction.

If you require frequent noise protection, you might consider having custom earplugs made.  We can take silicone impressions of your ear, and have a mold custom made to fit your ear perfectly! These molds are more expensive (range of $150-$300 for the set, depending on the materials and purpose), but they are long-lasting heavy-duty protection that is custom fitted to your ear, and your ear only.  In our practice, we have many models, styles, and colors available. You can even have up to three colors swirled together!


If you think you may benefit from noise protection of any kind, we will offer you a FREE CONSULTATION with recommendations for an appropriate noise protection plan.  We will also offer you 15% off of any custom fitted hearing protection product between now and January 31!  Please call our office to schedule your consultation now!


Stay tuned for an upcoming blog series on specialty hearing protection products!


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (2014). Noise. Retrieved from: on December 16, 2014.

American Tinnitus Association (2014). It’s a Noisy World We Live In. Retrieved from: on December 16, 2014.

All pictures retrieved from on December 16