Noise is a common cause of hearing loss in adults. During our lives, the cumulative effects of noisy environments and workplaces, busy city streets, technology exposure, loud recreational events and hobbies take a toll on the delicate structures of the inner ear resulting in permanent sensorineural hearing loss. It's happening to people at younger ages due in part to listening to music at damaging volumes with the use of headphones.
What is noise?
Sound is what we hear when vibrations from the source travel through the air and reach our ears. Noise is sometimes defined as unwanted sound, but in terms of hearing health, the definition is much broader. Noise is the sound around us, whether it is the ear-splitting guitar riff at a live concert, the boom of a fireworks display finale, the loud crack of gunfire, the roar of the lawnmower or the piped in music at a hip new restaurant at happy hour.
How loud is too loud? Your phone can find out via your phone and our list of the best smartphone decibel meter apps to measure noise levels.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
In simple terms, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is permanent damage to the tiny hair cells in your ears, which are responsible for sending sounds to the brain. Akin to earthquakes, loud sounds produce vibrations in the hair cells that are so powerful they are damaging—sometimes permanently.
Hair cells are not replaceable structures. Damaged hair cells are unable to trigger electrical signals to the brain, impeding hearing. Both intense but short noises—such as a nearby gunshot—and repeated or continuous exposure to loud noises—such as operating construction equipment—can damage the hair cells.
Any sound above about 85 decibels can lead to hearing loss (see chart below), though it depends on how long and how often a person is exposed.
Causes of NIHL
For some Americans, the workplace is the most common origin of NIHL. Jobs with the highest risk of noise exposure include:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to take precautions to limit employees' hazardous noise exposure, including providing hearing protection equipment, maintaining machinery, placing barriers or isolating the noise source and developing a hearing conservation program to test employees' hearing. You can find the OSHA regulations online. If you are provided hearing protection at your place of employment, take it seriously. Noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented!
Audiologists conducted a sound test of 33 motorcycles at the University of Florida and found that more than half produced noise above 100 dB when throttled. This level of noise exposure is only safe for up to 15 minutes, according to OSHA. Surprisingly, even more dangerous to hearing is the use of helmets; wind noise is constant, and it rushes around the helmet, creating pressure variations. At only 55 miles per hour, the wind noise a motorcyclist is exposed to can reach 90 dB. However, traveling between 75 and 80 miles per hour, wind noise is around 105 dB. Helmets are a must for safety reasons, so motorcyclists should also protect their ears by wearing earplugs.
Attending loud concerts, being a professional musician and listening to music at loud levels are all possible sources of NIHL. A study from the Netherlands showed that 50 percent of adolescents using earphones used high-volume settings, and only 7 percent had a noise-limiting device.
Noise-induced hearing loss symptoms
Here are some symptoms that indicate you need to get your hearing tested by a hearing care professional:
Other effects of loud noise exposure
Aside from damaging the hearing, loud noise exposure and NIHL can lead to:
How can noise-induced hearing loss be prevented?
Noise-induced hearing loss is usually permanent, so it's important to take precautions to protect your ears. There are several solutions available for people who anticipate being in loud noise situations, including:
Can you treat noise-induced hearing loss?
Noise-induced hearing loss is, unfortunately, permanent. While researchers sometimes stumble upon potential treatments that could one day restore the function of healthy ears, these solutions are not likely to come soon enough for the millions of Americans who need help now.
For them, and maybe for you, the best treatment for NIHL is properly fitted hearing aids. Today's technology works, and solutions are widely available for every budget and lifestyle need. If you already have hearing loss, visit a hearing healthcare professional like one listed in our directory of consumer-reviewed clinics and make an appointment today.