What is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the loss of hearing caused by unsafe exposure to loud noise. Loud noise causes damage to the structures and the hair-like sensory cells in the inner ear and causes noise-induced hearing loss. Sounds at a safe level will not damage your hearing ability, but brief exposure to extremely loud noise as well as prolonged or repeated exposure to loud noise are dangerous and results in this hearing loss.
NIHL can occur gradually over time or suddenly, and it can affect one ear or both ears. It is the second most common type of hearing loss after presbycusis, age-related hearing loss. According to the CDC, an estimated 12.5% of children and adolescents aged 6–19 years (approximately 5.2 million) and 17% of adults aged 20–69 years (approximately 26 million) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.
How Hearing Works
To better understand NIHL, it is important to understand how hearing works. Our hearing works by sound waves in our environment traveling from the outer ear to the middle ear to the inner ear to the brain. These sound waves travel from our outer ear to our middle ear to the inner ear, which houses the cochlea and nerve cells and then finally to the brain.
The auditory cells in the inner ear have tiny hair bundles known as stereocilia, and they convert sound wave vibrations into neural signals that get sent to the brain, so they can be interpreted as meaningful sound. NIHL damages structures in the inner ear, which disrupts this auditory process and results in hearing loss.
Causes of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
NIHL can occur from either brief, one-time exposure to very loud noise such as an explosion. It can also occur from prolonged or repeated exposure to loud noise such as listening to loud music at concerts or through headphones, using power tools, and using firearms. Those who work in jobs or environments where they are exposed to loud noise continuously such as first responders are at higher risk of developing NIHL.
Sound is measured by decibels. Sounds from 0 to 70 decibels are considered safe for people to hear without the risk of hearing loss. Repeated or prolonged exposure to sounds at and above 85 decibels can cause NIHL. The louder the noise is the less exposure and time needed for NIHL to develop.
Here are examples of the decibel ranges:
- 30-40 decibels: Whispering
- 50 decibels: Normal Conversation
- 70 decibels: Vacuum Cleaner
- 80-90 decibels: Heavy City Traffic
- 90-100 decibels: Power Tools, Motorcycle
- 110-120 decibels: Live Concert
- 140 decibels: Jet Takeoff
- 140-170 decibels: Gunshot
Preventing Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
The good thing about NIHL is that it is preventable. It is important to be proactive in taking care of your hearing health. To protect your hearing and reduce the likelihood of developing NIHL, be mindful and follow these preventative steps:
- Identify noise sources and reduce exposure if possible.
- Wear hearing protection such as earmuffs or earplugs if you are going to be exposed to loud noise. If you’re going to a concert, consider these high-fidelity earplugs.
- Turn down the volume of your music.
Try not to be exposed regularly to sounds that are over 85 decibels (the noise of heavy city traffic), and if you are, wear hearing protection. If you are still unsure if your environment is too loud, ask yourself:
- Do you have to shout to be heard above the noise?
- Can you understand someone who is speaking to you from less than 2 feet away?
- Can a person standing near you hear sounds from your headphones while it is on your head?
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