Remember being told to turn your music down as a teenager, or not to have the TV so loud? They had a point – as exposure to loud noise can damage the sensitive hair cells within the ears, resulting in temporary or permanent hearing loss.
In fact, when it comes to hearing loss causes, everybody should be aware of the risk of noise-induced hearing loss. It’s the second most common cause of hearing loss in the UK (after age-related hearing loss), believed to affect millions of people to varying degrees.
How does noise exposure cause hearing loss?
After soundwaves enter the ear and are carried through the middle ear to the cochlea, thousands of tiny hair cells in the inner ear turn these vibrations into electrical signals, which are then carried along the auditory nerve to the brain to be processed as sound.
These tiny hairs can be very sensitive to loud noise, causing them to bend more than usual and become damaged. Ever noticed ringing in your ears and everything sounding more muffled than usual after being at a very loud music concert? That’s an example of an overworked inner ear!
Will noise-induced hearing loss go away? Sometimes these effects are only temporary and our ears eventually return to normal. But a one-off exposure to extremely loud noise (such as an explosion) or repeat exposure to loud noise over extended periods of time can cause permanent damage.
What counts as loud noise?
Noise levels are measured in decibels (dB). According to the Word Health Organization research suggests our ears can safely tolerate noise at a level of 85dB for up to eight hours (the most commonly cited comparison for 85dB is city traffic/busy roads). A normal conversation is said to be around 60dB, while the hum of a refrigerator is around 45dB. The louder noise becomes, the less time we can tolerate it before damage sets in – and sometimes this can happen very quickly. For example, noise levels of 115dB may only be tolerable for a matter of seconds. For this reason, legislation is in place to help protect people who work in noisy environments from ear damage.
However, many of us are frequently being exposed to noises that exceed ‘safe’ limits. Here are some of the most common loud noises:
- Headphones. Like listening to your music with the volume cranked up high? It could easily be reaching 105dB or even more.
- Music concerts. Depending on the type of concert, a loud music show often reaches levels of 100-120dB. This might be even higher at a heavy rock concert near the front.
- Chainsaws and pneumatic drills. Many heavy machinery tools can be very loud, in the region of 120-125dB.
- Sirens. For obvious reasons, emergency sirens need to be loud. They’re often around 120dB.
- Motorbike engines. There’s a reason those loud revs are so piercing – they’re often hitting or exceeding 95dB.
- Aeroplanes taking off. 120-150dB. Notice how aviation ground crew always wear big ear guards? Up close, noise levels from aircraft engines on take off can rapidly exceed safe levels.
Who is most at risk of noise-induced hearing loss?
People whose jobs mean they’re routinely exposed to high noise levels – such as people working with heavy machinery or roadworks or in the music industry – tend to be most at risk. Anybody can be at risk of noise-induced hearing loss however, and experts often warn that young people who listen to loud music via earbuds or headphones are a key at-risk group.
Can you prevent noise-induced hearing loss?
The only way to prevent ear damage from loud noise is to avoid exposure. Legislation means that people in certain professions should be wearing suitable protective ear equipment, and anyone can buy these to help protect their own hearing if they are routinely exposed to loud noise.
Be mindful of volume levels while using headphones, listening to music and watching the TV and try to stick to keeping the volume below the ‘high’ ranges. If you do like listening to headphones, it’s a good idea to limit this to around an hour a day.
What are the symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss?
Often, one of the first signs of noise damage is tinnitus (unusual ringing or buzzing in the ears). High-frequency hearing loss usually occurs first – this means you may notice a reduction in your ability to hear sounds at a higher pitch, such as birdsong, the phone ringing or even children’s voices.
It’s not always possible to tell that you have hearing loss to begin with. However, you may start finding it difficult to hear people talking in places with background noise, and things may sound more muffled than usual. When hearing loss gets worse, lower frequency sounds may be affected too.
If you are at all concerned about hearing loss or tinnitus, the best thing to do is book an appointment for a hearing test. This assesses your hearing across a range of frequencies and volumes and should give you a good understanding of your hearing health.
Can noise-induced hearing loss be treated?
If hearing loss is such that it is impacting your quality of life or affecting your ability to work, the good news is there are things we can do to help. Hearing aids can be extremely beneficial, helping significantly compensate for lost hearing – which can have a huge impact both practically and socially, and in terms of restoring a sense of confidence and control.