Every day, we experience noises in the environment. Normally these sounds are at safe levels and don’t affect your hearing. However, exposure to loud noises (even for a brief time) can cause permanent damage to your hearing.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is hearing loss or a hearing impairment as a result of exposure to loud sounds. The hearing loss may be temporary or permanent depending on the damage to the bones in the ear. The structures in your ear regulate your hearing. When sound waves enter the outer ear, they travel to your eardrum. The eardrum then vibrates from the incoming sound waves and send these vibrations to tiny bones in your middle ear. Eventually, these signals will reach your brain. You can think of NIHL as “wear and tear” on your ears.
Sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds less than 75 decibels are unlikely to cause damage to your hearing. Long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The greater the decibel level, the shorter the amount of time it will take for permanent hearing loss.
Here are the average decibel ratings for sounds you may experience every day:
- Normal conversation - 60 decibels
- Noise from heavy city traffic - 85 decibels
- Motorcycles - 95 decibels
- A music device (iPod, iPhone) at maximum volume - 105 decibels
- Indoor concert - 115 decibels
- Sirens - 120 decibels
- Firecrackers and firearms - 150 decibels
When you are exposed to loud noises over a long period, you may slowly begin to lose your hearing. You may notice that sounds sound distorted or muffled. You may also have a harder time understanding other people. Loud noise exposure can also cause a condition called tinnitus. Tinnitus is a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears.
It is important to highlight that anyone can develop noise-induced hearing loss. This includes children, adolescents, and even young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 out of every 100 children and adolescents have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.
Common symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss include:
- You have a hard time hearing someone talk
- Speech and sounds may sound
- You hear ringing or buzzing in your ears
- Difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds
- Persistent pain in your ears
See a doctor if you are experiencing any changes in your hearing. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist called an audiologist. Audiologists are healthcare professionals who diagnose, treat, and manage hearing loss in children and adults.
Noise-induced hearing loss is hearing loss or a hearing impairment as a result of exposure to loud sounds. Individuals exposed to loud noises over long periods of time are at higher risk of developing NIHL.
Your doctor will first go over your medical history and ask you about your exposure to loud sounds. Your doctor will check the inside of your ears to see if there are any other causes of your hearing loss. You will then have a hearing test to determine the severity of your hearing loss.
Because the damage from noise exposure is usually gradual, you might not notice it, or you might ignore the signs of hearing loss until they become more pronounced. Once you begin to lose your hearing, there is no way to bring it back. The hair cells and structures in the inner ear do not heal or grow back. The only treatment for permanent hearing loss is the use of hearing aids.
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable by avoiding loud sounds or noises. If you need are exposed to loud noises, wear earplugs, or other protective devices reduce the level of noise. Some other protective measures you can take to protect your hearing include:
- Being alert to hazardous noises in the environment.
- Protecting the ears of children who are too young to protect their own ears.
- Moving away from loud noises if you don’t have earplugs or hearing protection.
- Having your hearing tested frequently if you are exposed to loud noises regularly.