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What is noise-induced hearing loss?

One of the most common causes of hearing loss is exposure to loud noise. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss can occur instantly or gradually over time, and it can be temporary or permanent. The symptoms will depend on whether it’s the result of long-term exposure to noise, or a sudden, single burst of very loud noise.

You can develop noise-induced hearing loss at any age. The CDC reports that around 5.2 million children and adolescents in the US live with a degree of permanent hearing loss caused by excessive noise.

This figure rises to 26 million adults aged 20 to 69 – around 17% of the population of that age.

Noise-induced hearing loss treatment is limited to wearing hearing aids or, if the degree of hearing loss is severe or profound, you might benefit from a cochlear implant.

Most sounds you experience in your day-to-day environment are at safe levels and won’t damage your hearing.

But, sounds that are too loud can be harmful to your ears and cause damage to your hearing and cause noise-induced hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss is any degree of hearing loss resulting from exposure to loud sounds.

This can happen if you spend prolonged amounts of time exposed to intense noise, such as working for many years in a factory where loud machines constantly operate.

In these cases, hearing loss is likely to develop over time and you might not notice any change in your hearing for a while.

When your workplace is the source of your hearing damage, it’s known as occupational noise-induced hearing loss.

Damage can also occur after you’re exposed to an extremely loud noise in a single, explosive bang or a short burst – like a shotgun going off, or a particularly loud fireworks display.

This is sometimes called acoustic trauma. If this happens, you’re likely to notice something’s wrong straight away.

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Causes of noise-induced hearing loss

Any noise that’s loud and long-lasting, or short-lasting but too loud, can cause noise-induced hearing loss.

Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and even sound that you’re used to hearing in your everyday life can start to damage your hearing (see below).

How loud are everyday sounds?

  • Normal conversation 60dB
  • Washing machine 70dB
  • Motorcycle 95dB
  • Music through headphones at maximum volume 94-110dB
  • Dog barking close to ears 110dB
  • Sirens 110-129dB
  • Fireworks 140-160dB

The louder a sound becomes, the shorter the time it could take to cause hearing loss.

Sounds louder than 85dB can cause hearing loss after around two hours of exposure, while just two minutes spent close to the source of noise at 110dB could also potentially cause loss of hearing.

Sources of loud noise that can cause hearing loss include:

  • Gunfire
  • Explosives
  • Heavy machinery
  • Power tools
  • Jet engine
  • Lawn equipment
  • Emergency alarms
  • Concerts and theaters
  • Musical instruments
  • Personal music players
  • Sporting events
  • Heavy traffic or motorcycles.

You’re at increased risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss if you’re in an environment with these noises for any extended time period.

As a result, noise-induced hearing loss is more likely to affect you if you work in certain industries. Data from the CDC suggests that around 25% of all workers have been exposed to noise at harmful levels.

Jobs that carry the highest risk include those in agriculture, construction, carpentry, mining, the military, as well as oil and gas extraction.

man working in construction no ear plugs

If you’re a veteran and developed hearing loss because of your service in the military, you might be eligible for free or subsidized hearing aids.

Some hobbies can also cause noise-induced hearing loss, such as hunting and shooting, listening to loud music through headphones, going to loud concerts, and sporting events. This noise-induced hearing loss is sometimes called sociocusis.

Noise-induced hearing loss can happen at any age. Although your chances of developing it increase with age, around 17% of young people between the ages of 12 to 19 are thought to have noise-induced hearing loss.

How does noise damage hearing?

Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by damage to the tiny hair cells in the cochlear.

Optimal hearing sees these hair cells convert the soundwave vibrations into electrical impulses, which then travel through the auditory nerve to the brain. The brain interprets these electrical impulses as sounds.

When the hair cells become damaged, they die off and don’t grow back. This means they are unable to convert soundwaves into electrical impulses and prevent the signals from reaching the brain.

noise damaged hair cells inside cochlea

Noise-induced hearing loss symptoms

When you’re exposed to loud noise over a long period of time – usually many years – your hearing loss is usually very gradual. This makes it hard to detect until it gets worse.

Symptoms are similar to those you’d experience with other types of hearing loss, including difficulty understanding speech (especially in noisy environments), and muffled or distorted hearing.

This type of hearing loss is usually caused by damage to the microscopic hair cells in the inner ear. The outermost hair cells that detect high-frequency sounds are exposed to noise, so they’re usually damaged first.

As a result, one of the first things people with noise-induced hearing loss often notice is difficulty with high-frequency sounds, like children’s or higher-pitched voices and birdsong. It may also be difficult to distinguish certain consonant sounds, like ‘s’, ‘sh’, ‘f’ and ‘th’.

A common symptom of noise-induced hearing loss is tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ears – although you might experience it as humming, buzzing, whooshing, or hissing.

If a single, sudden loud noise or burst of loud noise damages your hearing, you might experience ear pain as well as abrupt hearing loss. You may also be told that you’re shouting or talking loudly.

There is a phenomenon called diplacusis, or double hearing – where each ear hears sounds very differently, creating a distressing perception of sound. Double hearing can be a symptom of sudden noise-induced hearing loss, especially if it’s only in one ear. However, this is rare.

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How is noise-induced hearing loss diagnosed?

If you think you have any type of hearing loss, including noise-induced hearing loss, the first step is to visit an audiologist.

woman has hearing tested by audiologist

They will perform some hearing tests to assess the degree of hearing loss and identify any other treatable contributing factors, such as blockage in the ear canal (wax, for example).

If you’re over the age of 40, your decline in hearing might be due to a combination of age and noise exposure.

There is no specific test that can determine if your hearing loss is caused entirely by exposure to noise, or whether you also have age-related hearing loss, or presbycusis.

Whatever the cause may be, rest assured that the outcome of your tests will help determine the best treatment.

Noise-induced hearing loss treatment

If you’re diagnosed with noise-induced hearing loss as a result of a sudden, intense noise, or acoustic trauma, your doctor might advise you to monitor whether it improves.

Sometimes, noise-induced hearing loss is temporary and your hearing will return within 48 hours. However, even if your hearing appears to return to normal, you may experience long-term damage to your hearing.

When noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, your audiologist will probably recommend you wear a hearing aid.

Living with noise-induced hearing loss

It can be difficult and frustrating to come to terms with any type of hearing loss. Because it may cause a barrier to communication, it can make you feel increasingly isolated. In turn, this often leads to depression and prolonged anxiety.

This may sound worrying, but having your hearing assessed and finding a suitable treatment – typically a hearing aid that’s suited to you – will help you to cope better with hearing loss.

In addition, there are steps you can take to prevent your hearing from getting worse. For example, try to minimize how often you’re exposed to very loud noise, wear ear protectors or ear plugs, and, if you’re watching TV or listening to music, resist putting the volume up too high.

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Written by:
Allie Anderson is a health writer and editor with many years of experience creating accurate, evidence-based content for consumer and professional audiences. Allie is passionate about making medical information as accessible as possible, empowering people to make informed choices about their health and well-being. Allie holds a first-class honours degree in Linguistics from University College London, a Russell Group institution that’s ranked in the top 10 universities globally. She trained as a journalist with the UK’s NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) and after working as a news reporter for local newspapers and B2B titles, began writing about health. Published in medical journals, peer-reviewed magazines for healthcare professionals and a broad range of consumer titles, Allie has covered all manner of health and medical topics throughout her career, most recently focusing on hearing health and hearing loss. Allie has conducted in-depth research into the mechanisms underpinning hearing and has developed an understanding of the nuanced impact hearing loss can have on individuals and their loved ones.
Reviewed by:
Audiologist Ana Paula de Lima Rodrigues (Audiology and Speech Therapy BSc) is extremely passionate about providing exceptional care, advice and support for people with hearing loss. Ana trained at the University of Vale do Itajai in Brazil in 2001 and currently works in London where she is registered with The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
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