The sounds we hear every day at safe levels don’t do any harm to our ears, but constant exposure to loud noise, or even short-term exposure to very loud noise, can do permanent damage to hearing.
Noise-induced hearing loss is surprisingly common. The CDC estimates that 12.5% of children aged 6 to 19 and 17% of adults aged 20 to 65 have permanent damage to hearing due to exposure to noise.
This kind of hearing loss results from damage to the nerve fibers and other structures in the inner ear that detect sound and convey electrical impulses to the brain so we can perceive sound. Noise-induced hearing loss can’t be treated with surgery or medication, but it may be possible to compensate for noise-induced hearing loss and it is definitely possible to prevent it.
Here are five things you need to know about noise-induced hearing loss.
The louder the sound, the faster noise-induced hearing loss occurs
Noise-induced hearing loss can occur after a one-time exposure to an extremely loud “impulse” sound, like artillery fire or an explosion, or it can occur after repeated loud sounds that are not deafening after a single exposure.
The intensity of sound is measured in units called decibels. Sounds below 70 decibels, about the intensity of an ordinary conversation, don’t cause hearing damage. Repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels, like riding a motorcycle or a dirt bike or sitting through an action movie in a movie theater, do damage to hearing over a period of years.
Certain activities are associated with hearing loss:
- Shooting sports, even if you wear earplugs when you are on the shooting range.
- Riding a snowmobile.
- Listening to music through headphones at maximum volume.
- Fireworks shows.
- Woodworking is a woodworking shop.
- Operating heavy machinery.
- Playing in a rock band.
Sounds that too close, too long, and too loud damage hearing.
The early stages of noise-induced hearing loss aren’t always obvious
Have you ever had a hearing test where the audiologist tested your hearing by playing a single tone and asking if you could hear it?
This kind of testing doesn’t always catch noise-induced hearing loss. Because of the limitations of this kind of testing, your hearing specialist at Harbor Audiology will ask you questions about your hearing like these:
- Does your hearing seem to come and go? Loud noises can cause damage to the synapses, or junctions, between the sound-detecting hair cells in your inner ear and the nerves that connect them to your brain. Many of these synapses can recover after a one-time exposure to loud sounds, but there will always be a few that do not.
- Do you have trouble picking out a single voice in a crowd? When there is damage to your hearing, your brain works harder to detect sounds. The ironic effect of damage to your hearing is that you hear too many sounds, trying to find the one source of sound that is important to you.
- Do you have trouble hearing high-pitched sounds? The ability to hear, say, a soprano singing an aria or your young grandchild telling you a story may be impaired before you start having trouble hearing individual high-pitched tones. If you have trouble recognizing and responding to high-pitched sound, you may be in the early stages of hearing loss.
Diet makes a difference in how fast you lose your hearing due to repeated exposure to loud noise
Dietary antioxidants, compounds in the same category as vitamins C and E, slow down the process of apoptosis (aka cellular suicide) in nerve cells damaged by a loud noise. Your hearing specialist at Harbor Audiology can advise you on the latest scientific findings on the relationship between hearing loss and antioxidant status and whether taking antioxidants might help.
Medication can sometimes prevent noise-induced hearing loss, but only if it is taken very soon after the injury to the inner ear
There is a variety of anti-inflammatory agents and calcium-channel blockers that slow down the chemical processes that cause the death of nerves and tissues in the inner ear, but they have to be administered to coincide with the processes that can lead to hearing loss. The inflammatory processes that lead to cell death start as soon as one day after exposure to exceptionally loud noise and peak in the first week after exposure to exceptionally loud sound.
That means it’s important to get evaluated by your audiologist at Harbor Audiology as soon as possible after you have been exposed to sound that can damage your hearing. Don’t wait even a day to make your appointment.
Wearing hearing protection — consistently — can help protect your hearing
Most states have occupational safety standards that require hearing protection for workers that are exposed to 95 decibels an average of eight hours per day. At these noise levels, hearing protection will prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
However, hearing protection only works if it is properly fitted. You can tell whether your hearing protection forms a good seal around your ear with the “hum test.” Put your hearing protection on just one ear, and then hum. If your humming sounds louder in your protected ear, then it is fitted properly for that ear.
Hearing protection doesn’t interfere with your ability to hear and understand ordinary speech unless you already have hearing loss. If earplugs and safety earmuffs keep you from communicating on the job, then you probably already have a hearing problem with which your audiologist may be able to help.
The hearing specialists at Harbor Audiology can provide you the care you need for the best hearing possible. Our staff can help you with your questions about insurance or VA benefits, and we have office hours most evenings and Saturdays. Harbor Audiology serves Sequim, Silverdale, Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Port Angeles, and Bainbridge Island. Request your appointment online today!