Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Understanding Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

In Hearing Loss by Dr. Ross Cushing

Our hearing system evolved during the hundreds of thousands of years in which our world was much quieter. The past few hundreds of years — in the post-industrial revolution era — have turned up the volume significantly in our day to day activities. Certainly, no one is advocating to go back to a quieter time, but we do need to understand the impact of our noisy world and proactively take care of our hearing in ways that our ancestors never dreamed about. 

It’s estimated that as many as 40 million American adults have hearing loss as a result of exposure to loud noise. Noise-induced hearing loss can happen instantaneously or slowly and over time. It might stem from unsafe personal practices or occur on the job. Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, which means that previous levels of hearing cannot be regained. However, in most instances, it is treatable and once you have a diagnosis you can explore various intervention options. 

How does loud noise damage hearing?

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs because of damage to the hearing structure of the inner ear. The ear is designed to receive sound information (sound waves) that travel to the eardrum and cause vibrations that communicate sound to the fine cells of the inner ear. Too loud noise can adversely impact the health of these delicate inner ear nerve cells.These cells are not regenerative, which means that once they are damaged, they do not grow back. 

Types of noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss can happen suddenly in the instance of an extremely loud noise event. This might be an explosion or accident that causes immediate and irreparable damage. 

More likely, noise-induced hearing loss is a result of too-loud noise repeatedly and over time. This might happen because of your work environment, like factory work which frequently goes hand in hand with loud machinery. Noise-induced hearing loss might also be a result of recreation or lifestyle, like visiting shooting ranges or attending loud concerts. Like sudden noise-induced hearing loss, gradual noise-induced hearing loss is also permanent, but can be avoided or lessened by wearing proper hearing protection in extremely loud environments. 

Signs of noise-induced hearing loss

In the instance of sudden noise-induced hearing loss, such as an explosion, you will probably become aware of difficulty hearing within a short timeline because the before and after experience will feel pronounced and there might be some ear pain associated with the event.

However, in the case of gradual noise-induced hearing loss many people are not even aware that they are experiencing harm. Because there are many small instances of incremental damage that add up over time, it can be years before the effects of noise-induced hearing loss make themselves known. The first effects of hearing loss can sound like conversations or sounds are distorted and you have trouble understanding what people are saying. Or, you find yourself having to crank the volume up on your devices to achieve any clarity. 

How much noise is too much? 

Paying attention to your noise environments and protecting yourself adequately can help prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Noise is measured in decibels (dbA)  and sounds at 85dbA and above can result in hearing loss after exposure. To give you an idea of what level of decibel everyday activities are measured at, our normal conversation clocks in at around 60 to 70dBA.

  • Going to the movies: 74-104dBA
  • Riding a motorcycle: 80-110dBA
  • Construction work: 80-90dBA
  • Loud rock concert: 110dBA
  • Spin class: as high as 113dBA in some cases
  • Fireworks show: 140-160dBA

All of this isn’t to say don’t watch fireworks or see your favorite rock act in concert! But, you might want to limit exposure or use protective hearing gear to lessen the risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Sometimes, even taking a quiet break for 10 minutes when you find yourself in a noisy environment can help prevent damage. 

Schedule a hearing test

If you do find yourself questioning whether noise-induced hearing loss is playing a role in your life, schedule a hearing test today! We will perform a simple and painless examination to discern your level of hearing loss, if any. Should you have a condition that prevents you from hearing fully, we can explore options of intervention and treatment together. Alternatively, if you participate in activities that put you at risk for noise-induced hearing health, we can provide you with options to protect your hearing so that you can continue to do the things that you love.