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  • Writer's pictureAdvanced Audiology Assoc.

Loud noises... How they affect & how to protect

Whether it's at work or at play, our world seems to be getting louder. And while loud sounds aren't always harmful, it is important to be aware of the role they play in your hearing health. Based on a 2011-2012 CDC study, as many as 1 in 4 adults have had a hearing test that suggests hearing loss in one or both ears from exposure to loud noise.

The good news is, NIHL is the only type of hearing loss that is completely preventable.

What is noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) just what it sounds like – it's a hearing impairment caused by exposure to loud noise. While most of the sounds we hear on a daily basis are at safe levels, some sounds are not. Most cases of NIHLis caused by exposure to loud noises over time, but it can also occur when exposed to just one short burst – or impulse – of loud noise.

How does NIHL happen?

Just like our brains, our ears are amazing. The series of steps that must occur in order to translate electrical signals into sounds we can understand is complex - yet it happens in an instant. With NIHL, most damage is caused toward the end of a sound waves' journey, as tiny hair cells inside the ear open up to communicate with the brain. Loud noises can severely damage these tiny hairs, causing them to die. And they don't not grow back. This can cause both permanent hearing loss as well as tinnitus, a constant ringing or buzzing in the ear(s).

What noises are safe, and which may be harmful?

Generally, noises above 85 decibels can cause damage. Sounds that fall in the safe range (below 85 decibels) include most background noise, such as the television or the sound of a busy restaurant. Sounds that start to creep into the harmful range include those coming from motorcycles, power tools, and music through headphones, if caution isn't used. The most damaging sounds are in the 120-160 decibel range, such as a jet taking off or a shotgun being fired. The following chart from the Hearing Health Foundation illustrates common noises by decibel level:

While most of us don't have guns firing in the background, it's clear that there are still everyday noises that have the potential to cause long term damage to our hearing. To protect yourself or a loved one from NIHL, it's easy to remember a simple phrase used by the Hearing Health Foundation: "Walk, Block and Turn."

  • Walk away from loud noises or limit time spent in noisy environments

  • Block the noise by wearing earplugs or other protective hearing devices

  • Turn down the sound – if it’s under your control – on the growing number of tools, toys, and gadgets that add to the increasing noise level of daily life

In addition to these healthy hearing practices, make sure you have an annual hearing screening and understand your results. If your hearing health declines, it is an indication that you should increase your ear protection in situations that present risk.

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