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What Is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

Remember when you were younger and you wanted to listen to your stereo at max volume and your parents yelled to turn it down before you damaged your hearing? Well, as it turns out, there may actually be some truth to that. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is real and over time, can be detrimental to your hearing.

According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, one of every ten Americans experiences hearing loss, affecting their ability to understand normal speech. In relation, 15% of Americans have high-frequency hearing loss, which is related to occupational or leisure activities. In an effort to protect against a noise-induced hearing loss, the government passed many laws in regards to standard protection since 1960.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a permanent condition from long exposure to high noise levels. When a person hears a loud noise, it begins to kill cells in the inner ear, making it difficult over time to hear. As exposure to these loud noises continues over time, the inner ear hair cells are destroyed and result in a permanent hearing loss. At this time, there is no way to revive these dead hearing cells and reverse the process. The unique factor with NIHL is that it can be prevented completely through the use of proper ear protection during loud noise exposure.

Once a person is exposed to loud decibel noise, they can experience temporary or permanent damage to the inner ear cells causing hearing loss. Temporary hearing loss is typically experienced when a person experiences a sudden and short burst of loud noise such as gunfire, fireworks, or an air horn. People often complain about experiencing a ringing in their ears after hearing these loud and sudden sounds.

What Are The Symptoms Of NIHL?

For most people experiencing noise-induced hearing loss, they don’t recognize their symptoms for a long time. At first, they may notice a ringing in their ears. This is typically temporary and thus not a major cause for concern for most people. However, as time goes on, they may notice that it is difficult to hear people in large groups or that people appear to be mumbling when they are speaking thus making it difficult to understand them.

The above symptoms can be a result of impacted ear wax or it can be NIHL. Either way, it is important to note that if you experience any of these symptoms to contact your doctor or a hearing specialist for testing.

Keep in mind, that people will experience different levels of noise sensitivity. You may have NIHL if you feel the need to shout over background noise to be heard if your ears ring, if any noise hurts your ears, or if you feel temporary hearing loss for several hours after noise exposure.

What Are The Effects Of NIHL?

When a person experiences noise-induced hearing loss, especially younger in their lifetime, it can lead to other problems in relation to their quality of life. NIHL affects the ability to communicate, socialize, and interact in daily activities. These people experience difficulty understanding what is said over the phone, what is said in a large space, or when they cannot see the face of someone speaking. This causes frustration and leads to a lowered self-esteem, fear of social settings, shame, and in turn, depression. Since NIHL typically affects the higher pitched sounds first, people who experience hearing loss struggle to hear in social situations as well as hearing everyday sounds of nature and thus lose that capacity to recover after being stressed.

Understanding how the ear actually works makes it easier to understand the effects of NIHL. Once a sound is made, it travels into the ear and goes through a series of steps before reaching the brain.

  • Sound travels in waves through the outer ear and through the ear canal to the eardrum.

  • The eardrum vibrates and sends the vibrations through the middle ear.

  • The middle ear sends these vibrations through the cochlea of the inner ear which is filled with fluid.

  • Once the vibrations cause the cochlear fluid to vibrate, it causes the hair cells to move.

  • As the hair cells move, cause the pores to open into microscopic channels creating an electrical signal.

  • This electrical signal is then sent to the auditory nerve which carries it to the brain and translates it into the sound that can be understood.

If any of the process along the way are damaged such as the eardrum or the tiny hair cells, it makes the process change its function and creates an ineffective signal to the brain which makes it difficult to decipher what is being heard.

One of the main tests a doctor will conduct on people with NIHL is a questionnaire to help them determine if the hearing loss has resulted in a compromised quality of life. This is done in conjunction with an audiogram to determine the degree of hearing loss as well as the impact on daily life.

Can NIHL Be Prevented?

Noise-induced hearing loss is easily preventable using widely available tools such as earplugs and earmuffs. There are numerous education and hearing conservation programs that teach to the three basic ways to reduce NIHL.

  • Walk away

  • Turn it down

  • Protect your ears

Ensuring proper ear protection is key to preventing NIHL

The use of noise reduction devices is significantly hindered if people are not educated on how to properly use them. It is easier to use earmuffs than earplugs without proper education and receive the same benefits. Education begins at the youngest and should continue through adolescence for effective prevention. Teaching people from a young age about the risks of hearing loss, and helping them recognize situations that can cause hearing loss, will significantly reduce the chances of them experiencing hearing loss later in life.

While much of the loud noises people experience come from social and occupational settings, a person can also experience hearing loss from personal listening devices. In-ear earphones result in the most noise pressure to the ears and are also used at higher volumes since they block the least amount of background noise. Over the ear headphones block out more external noises and are thus used at lower volumes. These super-aural earphones are much better for preventing hearing loss.

In an effort to reduce occupational hearing loss, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that any industries operating above a certain decibel level be involved in a hearing conservation program. These programs require noise measurement and control, hearing protection and frequent worker testing, as well as education and record keeping. These regulations were designed to keep hearing damage with certain acceptable limits, not prevent it completely. These programs are designed to change the behavior of workers and those enrolled in the programs so that they can help regulate their own hearing loss prevention strategies.

In conjunction with hearing conservation programs, the government has developed many other initiatives to help as well. Alerting the public of areas where there are dangerous decibel levels and other public awareness programs are popping up around the country. Non-profit organizations distribute information and earplugs at concerts and other music festivals to prevent temporary hearing loss. Also, companies that are making strides to reduce noise in tools and other job-related decibel levels are being recognized around the world.

If you or a loved one notices any of the symptoms of hearing loss, it is important to contact a doctor or hearing specialist immediately for testing. As with anything, proper evaluation is critical in halting further damage to the ear.and additional hearing loss.