This topic provides information about noise-induced hearing loss. Be sure to check our general page on all types of hearing loss if you are looking for more information.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
Most sounds that we experience in our day-to-day environment are at safe levels and don't damage our hearing. But, sounds that are too loud can be harmful to our ears, even when exposed for a brief time.
Noise-induced hearing loss is any degree of hearing loss resulting from exposure to loud sounds. This can be a brief intense “impulse” sound or exposure to loud noise over an extended time period.
Noise-induced hearing loss can be immediate, causing a sudden hearing loss, or it can be gradual over time, getting worse as you get older. It can occur in both ears or one and can be temporary or permanent.
What causes noise-induced hearing loss?
Exposure to brief “impulse” loud sounds or long-lasting exposure to loud sounds can cause noise-induced hearing loss.
Sound is measured in a unit called decibels (dB). Normal conversational speech is around 60dB. Sounds which are louder than 85 dB can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound becomes, the shorter amount of time of exposure before a hearing loss occurs. Examples of some loud noises which can cause hearing loss include:
- Power tools
- Jet engine
- Lawn equipment
- Emergency alarms
- Musical instruments
- Personal music players
- Sporting event
- Heavy traffic or motorcycles
You have a greater chance of getting noise-induced hearing loss if you are in an environment with these noises for any extended time period. People who work in a factory, lawn maintenance, aviation, law enforcement, musicians or military are at a greater chance of getting noise-induced hearing loss. Some hobbies such as gun use, use of personal music players, and attending loud concerts and sporting events can also cause noise-induced hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss can happen at any age.
Noise damages our hearing by destroying the microscopic hair cells located within the inner ear. These hair cells detect sound and send them to the hearing nerve and the brain where the sound is processed. Once these hair cells are damaged, they do not grow back. The hair cells which detect high-frequencies are most exposed to noise and are usually damaged first. This is why most people with noise-induced hearing loss have a high-frequency hearing loss.
New research is also showing that noise exposure does even more damage than just the hair cells. To read more about the negative effects of noise on your hearing check out this article.
What are the symptoms?
When you are exposed to loud sounds over a long period of time (many years), the hearing loss is usually very gradual. This can be hard to detect until it becomes more pronounced. Symptoms will be similar to what you would experience with other types of hearing loss, including difficulty understanding speech, especially in noisy environments, and muffled or distorted hearing.
Exposure to a loud “impulse” noise such as an explosive or gunfire at close range can cause immediate damage. This may also be called an acoustic trauma. This damage may be temporary or, if intense enough, can be permanent. It is also possible for the eardrum to rupture from this impulse noise. Often times, a hearing loss will be noticed immediately following the incident in one or both ears.
A second symptom of noise-induced hearing loss is tinnitus. Again, the tinnitus may be temporary or permanent, in one or both ears.
How is noise-induced hearing loss diagnosed?
To diagnose a hearing loss, a complete audiological evaluation of your hearing by an Audiologist is recommended. The audiological evaluation will determine the severity and configuration of your hearing loss, as well as best options for treatment. There is no test that will specifically determine whether your hearing loss is purely a noise-induced hearing loss. In some cases, the hearing loss may be a combination of noise exposure and aging. A history of your prior noise exposure may help to determine whether noise exposure played a role in the hearing impairment.
How is it treated?
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. There are two things you can do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
If possible, try to avoid exposure to loud noise to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
2. Wear hearing protection
When avoidance is not possible, wear earplugs to protect your ears against damaging noises.
If diagnosed with a noise-induced hearing loss or acoustic trauma as a result of an intense “impulse” noise, it may be necessary to monitor the hearing loss to determine whether it is temporary or permanent. Usually with a temporary noise-induced hearing loss, the hearing will return within the first 12-48 hours. It is important to avoid any further noise exposure during this time. If damage to the eardrum has occurred, medical treatment by an ENT physician is necessary.
If diagnosed with a permanent noise-induced hearing loss, rehabilitation options can be discussed with your hearing healthcare professional. In most cases, hearing aids are recommended to manage the hearing loss and/or tinnitus.
Further research is being performed to find a pharmaceutical agent that can be used to protect the ears against noise, or restore hearing that has been damaged from noise.
Does noise-induced hearing loss cause lasting problems?
Noise-induced hearing loss can cause permanent hearing loss and/or tinnitus. Hearing loss can cause significant communication difficulties and tinnitus can cause significant irritability and anxiety. Both conditions can have a negative impact on one's quality of life. Noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented and precautions should be taken when exposed to loud noise.