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Decibel Examples: Noise Levels of Common Sounds

Published: July 14, 2022

Protecting your hearing is incredibly important. In most cases, when hearing damage occurs, it can’t be reversed. One of the best ways to protect against hearing loss is to understand the noise level of sounds you may encounter in everyday life.

Let’s take a look at how sound is measured and some decibel examples you’re likely to come across.

What are Decibels?

Sounds are measured in a unit called decibels (dB). The higher the decibels, the louder the sound. However, decibels are logarithmic, meaning they don’t increase at a steady rate. Instead, decibels increase exponentially. This means that the intensity of the sound doubles every 3 dB. For example, a 10 dB sound is 10 times louder than silence, while a 20 dB sound is 100 times louder than silence. 

How Loud is Too Loud?

In general, sounds over 85 dB can lead to hearing damage. Given the exponential nature of decibels, the risk of hearing damage increases rapidly as the decibel level rises. 

In addition to the intensity, the distance from the sound also plays a major factor in hearing damage. For example, a 90 dB sound will be more damaging from a foot away than a 100 dB sound would be from 50 feet away.

However, unless you’re carrying a decibel meter with you, it can be difficult to know exactly how loud sounds are—and if they are at damaging levels. That’s why it can be helpful to learn the noise levels of common sounds.

Decibel Examples

Understanding the intensity level of everyday sounds can tell you when you’re in a situation that may cause hearing damage. Prolonged exposure to these loud sounds and environments can lead to irreversible noise-induced hearing loss.

Keep in mind that these examples are general guidelines. The actual sound produced may vary slightly depending on the source. Therefore, these examples should be used as estimations rather than exact measurements.

Safe Noise Levels

Sounds under 85 dB are generally considered safe. Let’s take a look at a few common decibel examples that fall below the threshold.

  • 10 dB: normal breathing
  • 20 dB: leaves rustling, mosquito buzzing
  • 30 dB: whispering
  • 40 dB: quiet office or residential area, light rain
  • 50 dB: moderate rainfall, refrigerator 
  • 60 dB: normal conversation, electric toothbrush
  • 70 dB: washing machine, dishwasher
  • 80 dB: noisy restaurant, vacuum cleaner, garbage disposal
  • 85 dB: Blender, heavy traffic

Harmful Noise Levels

Sounds exceeding 85 dB can lead to hearing damage. In addition to decibel level, the risk of damage will depend on two main factors: distance from the sound source and time exposed.

  • 90 dB: lawnmower, shouting conversation
  • 95 dB: electric drill
  • 100 dB: night club, train, snowmobile
  • 110 dB: power saw, jackhammer, motorcycle
  • 120 dB: ambulance siren, chainsaw, rock concert
  • 130 dB: stock car race, jet engine
  • 135 dB: loud squeaky toy (next to ear)
  • 140 dB: airplane takeoff
  • 145 dB: fireworks
  • 150 dB: shotgun blast

Exposure Time

Becoming informed on common decibel levels can help you keep your hearing safe, but it’s equally important to know how long it takes for hearing loss to occur. As mentioned, it’s as much about the distance and time exposed as it is about the intensity.

Guidelines have been issued for total noise exposure. Organizations such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have set permissible daily exposure times based on decibel level to help protect workers who are exposed to loud sounds. Per NIOSH, a person reaches maximum daily exposure at the following times:

  • 85 dB: 8 hours
  • 88 dB: 4 hours
  • 91 dB: 2 hours
  • 94 dB: 1 hour
  • 97 dB: 30 minutes
  • 100 dB: 15 minutes
  • 103 dB: 7.5 minutes
  • 106 dB: 3.75 minutes

As you can see, each interval of 3 dB results in half the time needed for hearing loss to occur. Sounds above 110 dB can cause hearing damage almost immediately.

Protecting Your Hearing

Informing yourself on common decibel examples is only half the battle. Just because a rock concert can be loud enough to cause immediate hearing damage doesn’t mean you can’t go see your favorite band play. There are steps to take that will help you protect your hearing while enjoying the things you love.

Use Hearing Protection

The most obvious case of this is to utilize hearing protection. Earplugs and earmuffs are essential tools for preventing hearing loss in loud environments. For those who work in loud environments and industries such as construction or air traffic control, hearing protection should be considered part of the job. Extended exposure to these environments will result in permanent hearing loss if steps aren’t taken to mitigate the damage.

This is equally important for those attending a stock car race or going target shooting. Given that sounds during these activities can easily exceed 110 dB, these environments can be incredibly harmful to hearing if protection is not used.

Listen to Music at Safe Levels

One area not covered on our list: recreationally listening to music. That’s because the sound level while doing this is almost completely dependent on the user. Turning the volume too loud, especially while using earbuds or headphones, can be a major source of hearing damage.

When listening to music, be mindful of the volume, and avoid turning the song up during your favorite part. While it can be enticing, it’s not worth the risk of permanent hearing damage that comes from prolonged exposure to loud music. If listening on a mobile device, consider setting a volume limit (if your device supports this), or set a timer so that you know when to give your ears a break.

Speak Up When It Gets Too Loud

Exposure to loud noise isn’t always a personal choice. Occupational hearing loss is one of the most common workplace injuries in the United States. And while hearing protection can help, noise regulations exist to protect workers. If you suspect your workplace is not meeting these guidelines, it’s important to speak with human resources or a manager to address the issue. This will not only benefit you, but your coworkers as well.

Image of post writer Marcellé Swanepoel.

Written by Marcellé Swanepoel

B. Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology

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