By Anita Giles
MS, CCC-A Audiologist
Physicians Hearing Center
Close your eyes and let your ears explore the world around you. Listen to the sounds of summer—birds singing, children playing, traffic, lawnmowers, etc. Are the sounds pleasant/ meaningful or uncomfortable/ bothersome?
We think of sound as something we want to hear and noise as something to be avoided. Sound is measured in units called decibels (dB). An increase of 10 dB means that sound is 10 times more powerful and twice as loud to your ears. Sound impacts our hearing by how loud it is (decibel level), how close to your ears (distance), and how long the sound lasts (time exposed). Harmful levels of sound can cause permanent Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) by damaging the hair cells in the inner ear. In humans, hair cells can’t be fixed or replaced. NIHL can result from a one-time exposure to a very loud sound (explosion) or gradually from listening to loud sound repeatedly for long periods, (using ear pods). Research suggests that your hearing can be permanently damaged even if you don’t have noticeable HL right away. Since damage from noise exposure usually happens gradually, you might not notice NIHL symptoms until they’re severe. Although you may pass a hearing test, Hidden Hearing Loss (HHL) may be present causing issues understanding speech, especially when there is noise or multiple talkers. You may experience tinnitus (ringing/buzzing in the ears) or hyperacusis (sound sensitivity) as HHL typically develops before NIHL.
The American Public Health Association (APHA) has published a policy statement (Noise as a Public Health Hazard) defining noise as unwanted and/or harmful sound and describing how it can impact your auditory and physical health. In addition to NIHL, noise exposure can cause anxiety and disrupt sleep/daily activities. The body responds to noise stress by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and other functions that raise the risks of stroke, hypertension, heart attack, and even death. Noise affects the ability to concentrate, communicate, learn, and be productive. APHA states that the health of 100 million Americans is at risk from noise exposure, with children being amongst the most vulnerable.
Many Americans are losing hearing without occupational noise exposure. Before WW II, noise exposure outside the workplace was rare but since the 1960s nonoccupational noise has been recognized as a problem. Since the emergence of electric appliances, amplified music, lawn equipment, transportation vehicles, noisy restaurants, and personal audio systems (PAS), noise exposure is prevalent. In 2017, the CDC reported that almost 25% of American adults ages 20-69 had NIHL with 53% of them reporting no history of noise exposure.
Hearing as our “social sense” is used to communicate with others. HL may occur naturally as we age, but NIHL is entirely preventable. Once acquired, it is permanent and irreversible. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you understand the hazards of noise and how to practice good hearing health, you can protect your hearing for life. Avoiding excessive, constant, or sudden noise will, in the long run, prevent NIHL. Utilize Hearing Protection Devices (HPDs) such as earplugs/earmuffs. You only get one chance to protect your valuable resource of hearing.
References for this article can be found at:
‘Safe’ Noise Harms the Brain By Nina Kraus, PhD, and Trent Nicol, BS
Personal Audio Systems Unsafe At Any Sound By Jan Mayes, MSc, and Daniel Fink, MD
Noise as a Public Health Hazard By Jamie Banks, PhD, MSc, and Daniel Fink, MD, MBA
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: What Your Patients Don’t Know Can Hurt Them By Gina Shaw
Redefining Noise in the Context of Hearing Health By Daniel Fink, MD, MBA
Too Loud: Noise Exposure in Everyday Life is Causing Hearing Loss By Daniel Fink, MD, and Jan Mayes, MSc