What is noise induced hearing loss?

Noise induced hearing loss, also called NIHL, is the term given to permanent hearing loss caused by prolonged or short-term exposure to loud noises.

How does noise induced hearing loss occur?

Noise induced hearing loss can occur from the exposure to loud sounds. This exposure can take the form of either a single event, such as a firecracker or aeroplane jet, or the form of prolonged exposure to loud sounds. The longer you are exposed to the noise, and the more intense it is, the more likely you are to experience hearing loss. 

When we hear, sound waves enter the ear, causing the eardrum to vibrate and send nerve impulses to the brain, which translates it into a sound we can understand. Noise induced hearing loss occurs when the hair cells in your inner ear, which are used to carry these vibrations, are damaged, reducing their ability to transmit sound to the brain. Most cases of NIHL are caused by the eventual death of these hair cells.

Noise induced hearing loss symptoms

When it comes to NIHL, the changes to your hearing can be gradual or instant -   this is because hearing can deteriorate over time due to repeated exposure to loud noises, or can be lost instantly due to sudden and very loud noise.

Common symptoms include:

  • Pressure or fullness in the ears

  • Problems hearing over background noise such as TV or other conversations

  • Difficulty understanding what other people are saying - those suffering from NIHL report that it often sounds as if everyone is mumbling

  • Trouble hearing softer voices, such as women or children

  • Tinnitus or a ringing in the ears

Noise induced hearing loss causes

While noise induced hearing loss can result from extended exposure to loud noises, such as music or machinery, it can also be caused by a single exposure to noise like an explosion, fireworks, power tools or gunfire. 

If you think you will be exposed to any loud noises, and are worried about your hearing, it’s important that you wear hearing protection, such as earplugs or ear defenders, to reduce the risks.

Noise induced hearing loss treatment and management

Unfortunately, the damage caused by noise induced hearing loss is permanent, and currently, there is no effective clinical treatment for reversing the condition. The best approach is to prevent damage from happening in the first place, by using ear protectors and noise-cancelling headphones, and avoiding loud noises altogether. There are plenty of ways to guard yourself against NIHL. 

If you are already suffering from noise induced hearing loss, it's important that you take the necessary precautions to prevent it from worsening.

Noise induced hearing loss prevention

Noise induced hearing loss is preventable, and there are several precautions both children and adults can take to reduce the risk of hearing loss.

In everyday life:

  • Avoid or limit exposure to any overly loud sounds: staying away from loud concerts and sporting events or even turning down the volume of any music, radio, TV or podcasts you watch or listen to can go a long way towards protecting your hearing.

  • Limit the use of headphones: earbuds blast music directly into the ear canal, which can be dangerous. Remember - you should never increase the volume in effort to override outside noises. Opt for noise-cancelling headphones instead.

  • If possible, move away from the source of loud sounds: putting a safe distance between yourself and any loud noise, such as the speakers at concerts, along with taking breaks from overly loud sounds is key.

  • Use hearing protection: when in loud environments, use earplugs or other devices to reduce exposure to loud sounds. Foam earplugs can be purchased very cheaply and work to reduce noise of up to 25 dB of sound - which can make a significant difference between a dangerous and safe noise level.

At work:

If you work in a particularly loud environment, such as in a factory, your employer is responsible for ensuring adequate health and safety measures are in place to best prevent NIHL. These may include:

  • Fitting sound-absorbing materials and mats: from power tools to heavy machinery, NIHL is common in a number of construction and production environments. Therefore, fitting sound absorbing materials is ideal for reducing or limiting the effects of reflected sound.

  • Providing adequate hearing protection: ensuring your employees have a selection of hearing protection to choose from is essential to ensuring they find the type that suits their needs and requirements.

  • Up to date training and information: employers should always ensure staff have access to the latest information and training in order to stay safe and prevent any damage to hearing.

Remember: if you’re regularly exposed to loud noise, whether at work or during your free time, it’s a good idea to get your hearing checked regularly to monitor any changes. 

Frequently asked questions

Which noises can affect hearing?
Several factors can determine how loud a sound seems to us, including where you hear the sound, the length of the noise, or its pitch. Sound intensity, or volume, is measured in decibels (dB). A-weighted decibels or dBA, describes not just intensity but also how a human ear responds to the noise, and is a much better scale to determine exactly how sound can damage your hearing. Even tiny increases in dBA level can have a significant impact on your ears because, as dBA rises, the more likely your hearing is to be damaged.
What is a dangerous noise level?
Generally speaking, sounds at or below 70 dBA are safe. On the other hand, sounds at or above 85 dBA are much more likely to damage your hearing over time, while anything above 120 dBA can cause immediate harm. To put it into perspective, a whisper is about 30 dBA and normal conversation is around 60-70 dBA, while a person shouting into your ear is approximately 110 dBA.
Can you recover from noise induced hearing loss?
Unfortunately, as noise induced hearing loss causes permanent damage to the hair cells (or stereocilia) in your inner ear, if you have lost your hearing due to loud noise, it is irreversible.
What is the most common cause of noise induced hearing loss?

Noise induced hearing loss is caused by overly loud sounds, which damage the hair cells in your ears. While, in theory, any sound loud enough can cause noise induced hearing loss, common sounds include:

  • Power tools

  • Concerts or sporting matches

  • Loud music, especially when listened through headphones

  • Cinemas

  • Sirens

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