Sounds surround us each and every day. From the moment we wake up to the time we close our eyes to dive into a deep slumber, we experience sounds. Either from sound emanating from our alarms to traffic to those coming from the television as we watch our favorite shows, these sounds are generally at safe levels and don’t cause much damage to our hearing.
But sounds that are too loud can be harmful to our ears, even when exposed for a brief time. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 10 million Americans have already suffered irreversible hearing damage from noise, and 30 to 50 million more are exposed to dangerous noise levels every day.
What is Noise-induced Hearing Loss?
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is hearing loss caused by extremely loud sounds, either a one-time, brief burst of sound or by exposure to a loud noise over an extended period of time. The impacts may result in immediate hearing loss as well as gradual decline in hearing ability. It can be temporary or permanent, and it can affect both ears. What occurs is when our ears are exposed to these loud of sounds, the sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, leading to NIHL.
In cases where we may not immediately be aware of hearing loss due to NIHL, signs may show as time goes on. Having challenges while engaging in conversation with another person in either noisy environments or over the phone may be signs of gradual hearing loss due to NIHL. Regardless of impact, one thing is for sure, noise-induced hearing loss can be prevented. Knowing what may cause NIHL is the first step.
What are the Causes of NIHL?
NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to an extremely loud burst or “impulse” sound, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over a prolonged period of time. So how much is too loud?
According to professionals, long or continuous sound exposure at or above 85 decibels (dB), the measurement unit of sound, can result in hearing damage, and either permanent or temporary hearing loss. You’d be surprised what every day noises fall in between 85-100dB. Noises that fall in this range include: hair dryers, food processors, trucks or motorcycles, power tools, and yard and garden tools. Extremely loud sounds like firecrackers, firearms, explosives, and jet engines are all above 120db could be enough to cause permanent hearing loss, even if only exposed one.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, there are mandates for occupational noise exposure. With hearing protection, one can work under constant levels at 85dB for up to 8 hours. By 90dB, it is half, and at 94dB, it’s only one hour. A good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are too loud, too close, or last too long.
Signs and Effects of Noise-induced Hearing Loss
If you’ve been exposed to environments with higher than 85dB for prolonged periods of time, or experienced a sudden “impulse” of sound recently, you may be victim to noise-induced hearing loss. Sounds that used to be clear may now be distorted or muffled.
You may suddenly find it difficult to understand other people while engaged in conversation or having to turn up the volume button on your music device or TV. NIHL damage can lead to hearing loss severe enough that you need to hearing devices to amplify the sounds to help you hear and communicate in daily life.
In addition to hearing loss, and potentially the use of a hearing device, extremely loud noises can lead to tinnitus–ringing or buzzing in the ears and head–as well. Over time, the tinnitus may subside, but could possibly remain throughout a person’s life.
Prevention and Treatment for Noise-induced Hearing Loss
Being aware of hazardous noises is the first step in preventing NIHL. Sharing this knowledge with family, friends, and colleagues also raises awareness of dangerous noise levels and how they can impact our hearing.
You may be able to prevent hearing loss by turning down the volume on your music device. Be sure to wear hearing protection on your daily commute and always bring earplugs to a concert or sporting event where dB levels can be quite hazardous. One-third of permanent hearing loss is preventable with proper hearing loss prevention strategies.
If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of NIHL, seek a hearing test from Fidelity Hearing Center’s Audiologist Dr. DeKriek. He’ll be able to determine your level of hearing loss, provide important tips to protect your hearing, and work with you in finding solutions and treatment that meet your specific needs!