What is a Decibel?

We hear the word "decibel" used all the time, but it's only really when it comes to hearing loss that most people take the time to understand what it means. If you are looking for online hearing aids, or visiting a local audiologist, it can be important that you understand a few main terms. All hearing aids, whether Widex, Signia, Unitron or others, are sound instruments. 

Decibels measure sound intensity

Sound is energy that travels in waves and is measured in frequency and amplitude. Frequency, reported in Hertz (Hz), measures the number of sound vibrations in one second. Amplitude, reported on the decibel (dB) scale, measures its pressure or forcefulness. The more amplitude a sound has, the louder it is.

The logarithmic decibel scale measures differently than a linear scale. For example, every increase of 10 dB on the decibel scale is equal to a 10-fold increase in sound pressure level (SPL). Near silence is expressed as 0 dB but a sound measured at 10 dB is actually 10 times louder. If a sound is 20 dB, that's 100 times louder than near silence.

Decibels and hearing loss

Decibels might be just another measuring stick if it weren’t for the damaging effects loud noise inflicts on our hearing. Whether it’s a one-time exposure to a loud explosion or daily exposure to an excessively noisy workplace or hobby, our hearing suffers the consequences. This type of hearing loss is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

The NIDCD says everyone is susceptible to hearing damage as a result of noise exposure. They estimate approximately 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud noise at work or through leisure activities. 

Scientists have studied the effects of NIHL and, based on the levels of sounds in our environment, established recommendations for safe listening. How loud is too loud? The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes to damage hearing. Repeated or prolonged (more than 8 hours a day) exposure to noise louder than 85 dB can permanently damage hearing. And, in case you’re wondering what types of sound measures 85 dB, here is a short list of common sounds and how they measure up:

  • Normal conversation – 60 dB
  • Heavy city traffic – 85 dB
  • Lawn mower – 90 dB
  • MP3 player at maximum volume – 105 dB
  • Sirens – 120 dB
  • Concerts – 120 dB
  • Sporting events – 105 to 130 dB (depending upon the stadium)
  • Firearms – 150 dB

Here’s some good news. Hearing health professionals say noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can be prevented if we pay attention to — and protect our ears from — the sounds around us. If you’re planning to attend a concert or sporting event or spend a lot of time woodworking, riding motorcycles or operating outdoor lawn equipment, you’ll be exposed to noise levels in excess of 85 dB. That’s when it’s a good idea to invest in some hearing protection.

  • Ear plugs are inexpensive and can be found at most drug stores, but may not be suitable for extremely noisy situations. Foam ear plugs are disposable and conform to the shape of your ear; rubber or silicone ear plugs are washable and reusable.
  • Custom ear molds may be desirable for musicians and other hobbyists. These can be ordered through a hearing healthcare professional.
  • Earmuffs fit over the entire outer ear and muffle or block noise completely. Most are adjustable and can be found in sporting goods stores on online.
  • Noise-cancelling headsets also muffle or block noise completely and are best for people who need to communicate (pilots, military personnel) while blocking outside noise.

If you’re unsure about what type of hearing protection is right for you, consult a hearing healthcare professional.