WHAT IS NOISE-INDUCED HEARING LOSS?
Every day, we experience sound in our environment, such as the sounds from television and radio, household appliances, and traffic. Normally, we hear these sounds at safe levels that do not affect our hearing. However, when we are exposed to harmful noise—sounds that are too loud or loud sounds that last a long time—sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, causing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). These sensitive structures, called hair cells, are small sensory cells in the inner ear that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, our hair cells cannot grow back.
Scientists once believed that the pure force of vibrations from loud sounds caused the damage to hair cells. Instead, recent studies have shown that exposure to harmful noise triggers the formation of molecules inside the ear that can damage or kill hair cells.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF NIHL?
When a person is exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, symptoms of NIHL will increase gradually. Over time, the sounds a person hears may become distorted or muffled, and it may be difficult for the person to understand speech. Someone with NIHL may not even be aware of the loss, but it can be detected with a hearing test.
WHAT SOUNDS CAUSE NIHL?
NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to an intense “impulse” sound, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended period of time, such as noise generated in a woodworking shop.
The loudness of sound is measured in units called decibels. For example, the humming of a refrigerator is 40 decibels, normal conversation is approximately 60 decibels, and city traffic noise can be 85 decibels. Sources of noise that can cause NIHL include motorcycles, firecrackers, and small firearms, all emitting sounds from 120 to 150 decibels. Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the time period before NIHL can occur. Sounds of less than 75 decibels, even after long exposure, are unlikely to cause hearing loss. To learn how loud other sounds are, click here.
Although being aware of decibel levels is an important factor in protecting one’s hearing, distance from the source of the sound and duration of exposure to the sound are equally important. A good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are “too loud” and “too close” or that last “too long.”
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF NIHL?
Exposure to harmful sounds causes damage to the hair cells as well as the auditory, or hearing, nerve. Impulse sound can result in immediate hearing loss that may be permanent. This kind of hearing loss may be accompanied by tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears or head—which may subside over time. Hearing loss and tinnitus may be experienced in one or both ears, and tinnitus may continue constantly or occasionally throughout a lifetime.
Continuous exposure to loud noise also can damage the structure of hair cells, resulting in hearing loss and tinnitus, although the process occurs more gradually than for impulse noise.
Exposure to impulse and continuous noise may cause only a temporary hearing loss. If a person regains hearing, the temporary hearing loss is called a temporary threshold shift. The temporary threshold shift largely disappears 16 to 48 hours after exposure to loud noise. You can prevent NIHL from both impulse and continuous noise by regularly using hearing protectors such as earplugs or earmuffs.
WHO IS AFFECTED BY NIHL?
People of all ages, including children, teens, young adults, and older people, can develop NIHL. Approximately ten percent of Americans between ages 20 and 69—or 25 million Americans—already may have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive noise exposure. Exposure occurs in the workplace, in recreational settings, and at home. Recreational activities that can put someone at risk for NIHL include target shooting and hunting, snowmobile riding, woodworking and other hobbies, playing in a band, and attending rock concerts. Harmful noises at home may come from lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and shop tools.
CAN NIHL BE PREVENTED?
NIHL is 100 percent preventable. All individuals should understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health in everyday life. To protect your hearing, remember these three words: Walk, Block and Turn:
Walk away from loud sounds.
Block noise by wearing earplugs or other hearing protective devices when involved in a loud activity (special earplugs and earmuffs are available at hardware and sporting goods stores).
Turn the sound down on stereos and mp3 devices. Listening to an mp3 device at maximum volume (usually around 105 decibels) for more than 15 minutes per day may cause a permanent hearing loss.
Know which noises can cause damage (those at or above 85 decibels.)
Be alert to hazardous noise in the environment.
Protect the ears of children who are too young to protect their own.
Make family, friends, and colleagues aware of the hazards of noise.
If you suspect hearing loss, have a medical examination by an otolaryngologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the ears, nose, throat, head, and neck) and a hearing test by an audiologist (a health professional trained to measure and help individuals deal with hearing loss).
WHAT RESEARCH ABOUT NIHL IS BEING CONDUCTED?
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) researches the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of hearing loss. Most hearing loss is caused by damaged hair cells, which do not grow back in humans and other mammals. NIDCD-supported researchers have helped to identify some of the many genes important for ear development and hearing. One gene has been found to regrow hair cells in guinea pigs. More important, the treated animals were able to regain some of their lost hearing. This experiment is the first successful demonstration of gene therapy that improves hearing in formerly deaf animals. This is the type of scientific advance that we hope to harness, in our Hearing Restoration Project, to develop the first genuine cure for hearing loss.
NIDCD researchers also are investigating a potential way to prevent NIHL after noise exposure. Noise exposure triggers the formation of destructive molecules, called free radicals that cause hair cell death. Researchers initially had thought that antioxidants, chemicals that protect against cell damage from free radicals, might prevent NIHL only if the antioxidants were given before noise exposure. In a recent study, however, the antioxidants in salicylate (aspirin) and Trolox (vitamin E) were given to guinea pigs as long as three days after noise exposure and still significantly reduced hearing loss. These results suggest that there is a window of opportunity in which it is possible to rescue hearing from noise trauma. Scientists hope to begin clinical trials with humans with the goal of reducing NIHL.
Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2007.