Noise-induced hearing loss: Are you at risk?
One of life’s guilty pleasures is turning up the volume on the car radio and singing to your favorite tune like you’re one of the band. While it seems harmless enough – and more than likely provides comedic relief for fellow travelers – the practice can actually lead to one of the most common forms of hearing loss.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the diagnosis hearing healthcare professionals give when individuals have lost hearing from exposure to excessive noise. That ringing in your ears when you finally finish the last chorus and turn the volume back down? That’s coming from the sensitive structures in your inner ear which have been affected by noise in excess of 85 decibels (dB).
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), NIHL can be temporary or permanent and affect one or both ears. The NIDCD estimates 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to noise in the workplace or during leisure activities.
NIHL can occur suddenly as a result of an explosion or occur over time from continuous exposure to loud sounds. How loud is too loud? According to the NIDCD, sounds of less than 75 dB are unlikely to cause hearing loss while long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss.
For reference, normal conversation measures around 60 dB, city traffic registers 85 dB, emergency sirens blare at 120 dB and explosions from firecrackers and firearms blast at 150 dB.
How does noise damage the inner ear?
Inside our inner ear is a carpet of tiny hair cells. These cells are responsible for translating the noise our ears collect into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses travel along the auditory nerve to our brain, which interprets them as recognizable sound.
Some researchers believe the vibrations from loud noise damages these hair cells. Since they don’t regenerate, our inner ear loses the ability to send electrical impulses to the brain – and we lose our ability to hear.
Who is at risk for developing noise-induced hearing loss?
Actually, anyone subjected to loud noise for prolonged periods of time runs the risk of developing permanent NIHL; however, there are certain segments of the population who are more at risk than others.
Veterans: According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, hearing loss is one of the most common military service-related injuries. The severity of veterans' NIHL depends upon their length of service and age, as older individuals are more likely to develop NIHL. Veterans are also more at risk for developing tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing or roaring in one or both ears.
Musicians: According to a recent study by German researchers, professional musicians are four times more likely to develop NIHL than other people. Rockers such at Pete Townshend, Ozzy Osbourne, Neil Young and Phil Collins have publicly discussed their issues with hearing loss and tinnitus.
Workers in noisy occupations: According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related injury in the United States. More than 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise at work and an estimated $242 million is spent annually on worker’s compensation for hearing loss disability.
As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set guidelines for permissible noise exposures in the workplace of 90 dB in an eight hour timeframe. Employers with noisy workplaces are required to administer a hearing conservation program which includes a monitoring program, audiometric testing, hearing protection devices, employee training and education and recordkeeping.
What can you do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
Unlike other forms of hearing loss, NIHL can be prevented. Many forms of hearing loss are genetic, caused by gene mutations, and therefore unavoidable. Presbycusis, one of the most common hearing conditions affecting older adults, occurs as a result of the aging process and is also unavoidable.
There is no cure for NIHL so the best way to avoid developing this type of hearing loss is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. The NIDCD encourages individuals to be aware of the sounds in their environment and protect themselves from those that are too loud.
- Wear earplugs or other hearing protection devices when participating in recreational activities which produce loud noise, such as motorcycling, snowmobiling, hunting or playing in a rock band. Earplugs are available in most drug stores. Noise-reducing ear phones can be found in most sporting goods stores and customized earmolds can be purchased from select hearing centers for musicians.
- If you can’t reduce the noise or protect your hearing from it, move away from the source.
- Protect young children from dangerous noise levels, especially if they are too young to protect themselves.
Have your hearing tested if you believe you may have NIHL. Together with your hearing healthcare professional, you can make a plan to protect your remaining hearing and select hearing instruments to address the loss you’ve already developed. In the meantime, turn down the volume of your car concerts. You may not sound as good when the music is at half volume, but your ears will reward you with better hearing if you do.