We’ve all experienced the side effects of too much noise. Maybe you can still hear your ears buzzing after a concert. Or maybe you’ve just had a fun night out with your friends, and you notice that everything sounds a little dimmer when you leave.
The fact is the world is a loud place. And often we don’t realize how much our ears are being impacted. Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, can be caused by any of the above scenarios, and many other everyday encounters, like that annoying jackhammer on your way to work or the leaf blower that seems to start every Saturday at 7 a.m.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, between 10 million and 40 million adults in the United States under age 70 may have hearing loss in one or both ears after exposure to loud noise. That’s as much as 24 percent of U.S. adults! And one study suggests as many as 17 percent of teens may already be experiencing NIHL.
In this article, you’ll learn more about NIHL and how to prevent it.
What is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
NIHL is hearing loss that occurs after exposure to loud sounds.
Sometimes NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense sound. For instance, if you’re standing right next to an explosion, your hearing will likely be impacted.
More commonly, NIHL is caused by continuous exposure to loud noise, for instance when you’re next to a construction zone, listening to live music, or running the lawnmower.
Our smartphones may also be to blame for NIHL. The World Report on Hearing, released in March 2021 by the World Health Organization, estimated that more than half of people ages 12 to 35 used their smartphones or other personal audio devices so loudly that it could impact their hearing.
How Loud is Too Loud?
Although people have different levels of sensitivity to noise, long-term exposure to noises over 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss.
A decibel is a measure of sound’s volume. Decibels are measured logarithmically. That means for every 10 dB increase, the sound is actually 10 timeslouder.
So, how loud is 85 decibels? A blender, heavy traffic, an alarm clock, a passing train, a hair dryer, or a movie in a theater all register at around 85 dB.
Sometimes you may be exposed to even louder noises. Common 100 dB noises— and, remember, that’s 15 times louder than 85 dB noises — are motorcycles or some factory noises.
Other common noises are even louder. Concerts are typically about 120 dB. Fire and ambulance sirens can be as loud as 129 dB. And fireworks? They can be as loud as 160 dB! Ouch!
What Professions Are Most at Risk for NIHL?
Professionals who are exposed to noises over 85 dBs for extended periods of time are most at risk of NIHL. When noise reaches over 100 dB, just 15 minutes of exposure can cause permanent damage. Below are professions where workers are commonly exposed to this level of noise and above.
- Construction Workers: Power tools are noisy. A jackhammer alone is round 115 dB. According to the CDC, 14 percent of all construction workers have considerable hearing difficulty because of on-the-job noise.
- Factory Workers: Factory workers are also surrounded by dangerous levels of noise. According to OSHA, operating heavy machinery can leave workers exposed to noise as loud as 120 dB.
- Flight Crews: During flight, the inside of an airplane can span between 80 and 85 dB, very close to the danger zone. But during takeoff and landing, tarmac crews on the ground are exposed to noises as loud as 140dB.
- Bartenders: If you’ve shouted over someone to order a drink, you know how loud it can get in a crowded restaurant, bar, or club. OSHA estimates that a loud club with music can ring out at 110 dB.
- Musicians: Not only are concerts loud (typically around 115 dB), they’re also long. A musician may be exposed to 115 dB of noise for several hours per day.
What Are the Symptoms of NIHL?
When you’ve been exposed to high levels of noise over a long period, you may start losing your hearing. This progression happens because of damage to your inner ear. Often, the hearing loss is gradual, so you may not realize you’re losing your hearing right away. But eventually you may notice sounds are becoming distorted or muffled. You may also notice you’re having a hard time understanding people when they speak.
Another symptom of NIHL is tinnitus. Tinnitus is a constant ringing, whooshing, buzzing, or roaring in the ear.
NIHL induced symptoms can occur in one or both ears.
How to Protect Your Ears and Treat NIHL
Although noise is inevitable, NIHL is preventable. The key is to take preventative care and intervene early. If left untreated, NIHL may eventually require hearing aids or cochlear implants to get relief.
- Block the noise. If you know you’re going to be in a noisy space, such as a concert or on an airplane, consider using earplugs or earmuffs. You have a number of different options to choose from, including plugs that go in or sit on top of the ears.
- Lower the volume. When listening to music or watching TV, lower the volume. If you must blare the sound, keep it to 15 minutes or less.
- Gauge the sound. How do you know if the volume is in the decibel danger zone? You can download decibel monitors for your smartphone. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offers a free monitor for iOS devices.
- Have your hearing tested. The onset of NIHL can be so gradual that you don’t realize at first that your hearing has been impacted. Regular hearing tests help spot the first signs of hearing loss.
- Stay educated. Although October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, your aural health is important all year round. Reading articles like this is a great start to understanding more about the dangers of excessive noise.
- Ask for change. If you work in a noisy environment, consider petitioning management for change. You can also reach out to your local legislator and ask them to work on legislation to limit and monitor noise pollution.
Although noise is going to happen, NIHL doesn’t have to. With preventative treatment and care, you can keep your ears healthy.